Your Personality, Your Noise

There are far too many unsupported and overhyped statements about what “science tells us” about introverts and extraverts. This distorts the dialogue and affects school and workplace policy. I take up this subject both because it overlaps with some of my interests and because it bears examination. “Science tells us” statements have popular appeal, a big market, and numerous high-profile outlets. They need vigorous questioning.

When it comes to introversion and extraversion, the findings are far less definite than pundits claim. Any blanket statement about introverts and extraverts needs unblanketing. (I see no need to call anyone an introvert or extravert in the first place, but that’s another matter.)

Here is an example. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Susan Cain says,

And just to give you kind of a concrete illustration of [how introverts and extraverts work differently], there’s this fascinating study that was done by the psychologist Russell Geen, where he gave math problem [sic] to introverts and extroverts to solve with varying levels of background noise. And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.

I can’t find that study anywhere, but the statement alone contains some problems, which I’ll lay out in just a moment. I did find Geen’s 1984 study “Preferred Stimulation Levels in Introverts and Extraverts” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 46, no. 6), and I found it precise and cautious in its wording.

This study consisted of two experiments. Subjects (all male) were selected from the upper and lower 25 percent of the Extraversion scale of the Eysenck Personality Inventory. They were undergraduates enrolled in psychology classes.

For the first experiment (which involved 30 extraverts and 30 introverts), Geen sought to determine whether extraverts and introverts, given the freedom to choose a noise level (other than zero), would differ in their choices, and whether such freedom of choice would equalize their arousal levels. There was a “choice” condition and two control conditions: one where the subject was given the noise level chosen by another (“yoked”) subject with the same personality type, and another where the noise level was selected by the experimenter. The subjects took this test one at a time. After selecting their noise level (or having it selected for them), they had to  wait two minutes. Then the projector was turned on, and they worked to complete a paired-associates learning task. The learning task ended when they completed two successive errorless trials. If, after twelve trials, they had not achieved this, the procedure was terminated.

The second experiment had more subjects (40 extraverts and 40 introverts) and a slightly different approach. This time, in addition to selecting their optimal noise level, introverts indicated the lowest acceptable noise level, and extraverts the highest. This established the four intensity levels used in the study. There was only one control condition: where the experimenter chose the noise level for the subject. (The “yoked” condition was eliminated because, in the first experiment, its results did not differ from those of the choice condition.) Otherwise this experiment followed the same procedures as the first.

I will focus on the results of the second experiment (because I have a bit more to say) and because, in Geen’s words, it provided “a replication and extension of the first.” With respect to pulse rate, something interesting came up: introverts and extraverts did not differ in pulse when they had chosen their noise level. When subjected to moderate noise, introverts were more aroused (i.e., had a higher pulse rate) than extraverts, but at the extreme noise levels (high and low), their rates did not differ from each other. This, right away, casts doubt on the blanket assertion that introverts are more sensitive to stimuli than extraverts. The statement needs careful qualification and questioning.

When it came to the task, introverts and extraverts performed equally well at their chosen noise levels. When subjected to superoptimal noise levels, both introverts and extraverts did significantly worse. When subjected to suboptimal noise levels, extraverts did significantly worse, but introverts did not (or they did worse, but not significantly).

This is interesting (and again, carefully thought out and presented), but I see a few caveats here. (And I haven’t forgotten about the Cain quote; I’ll come back to it in a minute.)

First, there are problems with selecting the top and bottom 25 percent on the extravert scale; your subjects are already at the extremes. How much of this applies to a full population is uncertain. That said, if you didn’t do that, you’d probably end up with so much noise (in the data) that you couldn’t draw any conclusions.

Second, I wonder to what degree the Eysenck Personality Inventory already relates to noise tolerance. That is, are these subjects defined as introverts/extraverts partly on the basis of their reported tolerance of noise? That would make the experiment somewhat redundant.

Third, I wonder to what extent the particular kind of noise influenced the results. (These were one-second bursts of white noise, with a mean of ten seconds between bursts.) I can imagine the high levels being particularly jarring (to anyone), and the low levels annoying (that pesky sound you can’t get rid of).

There are still more open questions; to begin to address them, I would need more statistical  knowledge and access to the raw data. To his credit, Geen does not draw rash conclusions from this study; at the end, he offers possible implications and describes the work that still needs to be done.

So I come back to the Cain quote, in particular: “And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.”

She could not have been talking about this study, because that was not the finding. There must be another  study that I haven’t located yet. Even so, a person making such a statement should specify the following:

  1. Which study is this? Give identifying information.
  2. How were the introverts and extraverts selected and defined?
  3. What kind of noise was used?
  4. What were the math problems, and what do you mean by “did better”?
  5. Was there any complexity/contradiction to the findings?
  6. Did the author bring up any caveats (and do you see any)?

That’s a lot, I know, and in an interview it might not be realistic. But that’s only scratching the surface; an expert should be able to do things I myself can’t do: for instance, explain the methods used for interpreting the raw data.

What I see instead (and not just from Cain by any means) is a tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate the results of studies, and to do so again and again.

Some of these studies are interesting and valuable. Others are bunk. Still others are works in progress. All of them have limitations, but when taken skeptically and cautiously, they can help us reach greater understanding.

The implications? I see no problem with the idea that different people work well at different noise levels. But reducing the matter to “introverts” and “extraverts” is unnecessary and unfounded. Much depends on the individual, the context, the particular task, and the type of noise. There are situations that call for quiet, situations that call for noise, and a range in between. While a workplace should probably establish basic quiet (so that the noise doesn’t get out of hand), people can learn how to handle both quiet and noise in reasonable degrees.

Note: I made a few minor revisions after posting the piece–and then made a few more a year later. Also, Science of Us (New York Magazine) has started challenging some of the pop-psychology assertions about introversion and extraversion. (Here’s another piece on the topic.)

Noise and Its Discontents

A few weeks ago, during a lesson on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I played my students a DVD of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra performing the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, which has “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” as its lyrics. At first, the students were somewhat giggly; then a hush came over the room. We were all taking part in something extraordinary. Afterward, I felt rested and restored; weeks later,  I carried the music in my mind.

It’s a truism to say that we live in a noisy world—but noise has become the default in our lives. We acquiesce to having many conversations and activities at once; to focus on a single thing seems brazen. Yet something like Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 requires full focus; insofar as we have pushed such focus away, we have pushed away the music too.

Lately I have read, on blogs and in magazines, various insinuations that certain people—classified as Highly Sensitive People—are especially affected by noise. To me, that’s a diversion of the problem. Yes, noise affects some more acutely than others, but it affects everyone; it scatters our thoughts, work, conversations, meals, commutes, and sleep. As we (as a society) lose the practice of quieting down, we also break up others’ quiet.

But let’s backtrack a little and take a look at what noise and quiet actually are. The words are often used loosely to encompass visual stimuli as well as sounds. This is legitimate; I will explain why.

The word “noise” apparently derives from the Latin nausea (“disgust, annoyance, discomfort”). That is one theory, anyway. Another is that it derives from the Latin noxia (“hurting, injury, damage”). Let us think of it as something cacophonous to the ear or eye or mind—a pile of clashing stimuli. So, if I am reading an article online and am interrupted by flashing ads and popups, I consider the experience noisy. If I am at a concert, and my neighbor is checking messages on her illuminated handheld device, I am bothered by what I would call noise. You can have a chorus of a hundred and no noise; you can have two people interrupting each other—and noise aplenty.

The opposite of noise, then, is not silence, but harmony and integrity. A focused class discussion is harmonious in that the people listen to each other, build on each other’s points, and refrain from distraction. The harmony need not be perfect. In a concert hall, there will be sounds of rustling programs and feet, or even the occasional squeak of the bow on the string. That doesn’t turn the performance into noise. Nor do dissonant musical intervals, necessarily. You can have a dissonant piece that is nonetheless harmonious in a larger sense. Noise destroys the harmony and integrity of something.

Quiet is not silence; it is a kind of rest. You can be quiet while giving an animated speech; the quiet underlies the speech. It is that which allows you to collect your thoughts and perceive the audience. Without the quiet, it’s difficult to collect or perceive.

So, what are the intrusions on the quiet? What accounts for the rise of noise?

One of the biggest culprits is acquiescience: the attitude that “that’s just the way it is today.” I often hear people say that because we live in a world of multitasking and constant digital communication, we should simply go along with it, in the classroom and everywhere else. Stop holding on to the old ways. Adapt to the new. Have more group work. Have kids text about Shakespeare. Have many conversations going on at once. Even explicators of the Common Core—or many of them–tell teachers not to be the “sage on the stage” but instead to “facilitate” while the students work in groups.

I have never advocated for lectures as a primary pedagogical format in secondary school. When I defend lectures or the “sage on the stage,” I defend them as part of a larger collection of approaches. That said, they merit defense. One great benefit of the lecture is that it allows students to listen to something, make sense of it in their minds, come up with questions and counterpoints, etc. Also, there are some true sages in the classroom. I don’t claim to be one—but I have had teachers to whom I wanted to listen for hours because they inspired me so much.

When the quiet and focus are in place, a host of possibilities arises. The teacher can shape the presentation; she has the latitude to approach a question obliquely, since she doesn’t have to meet the a demand for instant entertainment and sense. The students start to see how one idea leads to another; the sustained thought enters into their reading and writing. This makes room for serious joy and accomplishment.

Outside of school, whoever reads a book for an hour or two without interruption, practices an instrument with full concentration, or stays away from email for a full day, not only has a treasure, but holds it out for others to take as well.

For these reasons, I will continue to fight the noise on many fronts, external and internal. It may be a losing scrimmage, but if I can win here and there, it will be worth it.

 

I made a few revisions to this piece long after posting it.