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Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration January 16, 2012

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Everyday life, Uncategorized.
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I’ve just read a New York Times article by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone. And, she argues, those are the people who really come up with all of the great ideas.

There’s a grain of truth to Cain’s claim: Psychologists who study creativity know that it requires both solitude and collaboration. Exceptional creativity involves a lot of hard work, and that often happens in solitude. But Cain misses the big picture: Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that’s because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas. (Matt Ridley famously calls it “ideas having sex.”)

In 2007, my book Group Genius was partly responsible for what Susan Cain calls dismissively “the rise of the new groupthink.” So I feel like I’ve been called out to respond. Yes, solitude plays a role in the creative process, but Cain overstates her case and misrepresents some of the research. Here are five specific examples of misleading or incorrect statements in her article:

1. Cain says that research by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverted. Csikszentmihalyi was my graduate advisor, so I know that what his research actually found is that “Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted….[they] exhibit both traits simultaneously.” Reviewing all of the studies of creativity and extroversion using the “five-factor” personality model, most studies don’t show any relation between creativity and either introversion or extraversion. A few studies show a small relation, and for those, it’s always a positive relation between creativity and extraversion. (see my book Explaining Creativity for the details.)

2. Cain argues that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, is a classic introvert and he’s the one who actually invented the Apple personal computer. She grants that Wozniak never would have had the idea if he hadn’t been exchanging ideas with the Homebrew Computer Club, and he knows that Wozniak’s computer never would have been built and sold if it weren’t for his collaboration with Steve Jobs. It’s true that Wozniak had to go home and build the thing alone…but the real creativity came from collaboration.

And the Macintosh computer–which was a much more innovative product, with the graphic user interface that the one we still use today–resulted from Steve Jobs’ networking and idea exchange with Xerox PARC, the lab where the windows-and-mouse technology was first demonstrated. No solitude story there.

3. Cain is critical of the new trend of using collaborative groups in school classrooms. But in the New York Times article, she doesn’t give any reasons to dislike this, and doesn’t cite any research on the topic (maybe she will in the forthcoming book). Collaboration and learning is one of my research topics, so I know that there’s a huge volume of evidence–going back three decades–showing that collaborative interaction enhances learning. Of course, it has to be done in the right way, and no doubt there are teachers who form student groups in ineffective ways, but you can’t base an argument on a few ineffective teachers.

Regarding learning and mastery, Cain cites Anders Ericsson’s expertise research correctly; that research shows it takes 10,000 hours of mostly solitary practice to become an expert. And I too have argued that this is a prerequisite to a creative life. But that’s not where new ideas come from; that’s just the base of knowledge you need before you’re able to play the game, to combine great ideas and to recognize good ideas.

4. Cain argues that the “Coding War Games” study shows that solitary computer programmers perform better than programmers that don’t get any privacy. But I’ve done studies of pair programming–a core technique of the popular approach known as “extreme coding”–and the research convincingly demonstrates that pair programming results in better computer programs.

5. Cain is absolutely right about the research showing that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of solitary people working alone. But there’s an important exception to this research: if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. And in most real-world organizations, problems are pretty complex–not the simple word-generation tasks used in brainstorming experiments.

Cain has read a broad range of important research, and she gets some things right. And she’s smart enough to realize that the more defensible position is that you need both solitude and collaboration. But in her desire to elevate the role of solitude, Cain’s article misrepresents the research. And the research has found just the opposite: collaboration is the key to creativity.

There must be a lot of introverts out there, because when I looked at her book on Amazon.com today, it’s one of the top 100 best selling books. Cain’s book will no doubt appeal to those readers who enjoy solitary work, who’ve sat in endless time-wasting meetings, who did a group project in high school with a bunch of slackers…come to think of it, that pretty much describes everyone, including me! But don’t let yourself be misled by your own bad experiences with groups. The science of creativity shows that exceptional, successful creativity depends on groups, networks, and conversation. If you hole up alone at home, I guarantee you will be less creative.

Comments»

1. Wayne Hall - January 16, 2012

Thanks for the blog post, Keith. Like you, I believe that creativity is a solitary and collaborative pursuit. But as an introvert myself, I can relate to the emphasis in Cain’s work on the importance of solitude to groups and creative pursuits, or in the case of William Deresiewicz’s “Solitude and Leadership,” to leadership. Jaron Lanier made a point similar to Cain’s in his essay a few years back, “Digital Maoism.” In a age when it is almost impossible to leave behind the daily intrusions of our connected world, introverts have something important to add to the group in the form of a well timed challenge or another take on the matter at hand.

Since both of you agree that the individual and group need each other, the issue is one of emphasis in my view. I don’t see it as an
“attack.” As someone fueled by his interior life, one who generally doesn’t work out what he thinks in an exchange with others, I’m not all surprised at the interest her book is drawing. Aside from the merits of her research, Cain, as well as figures like Deresiewicz, Lanier and Nicholas Carr, all offer a useful and relevant counter narrative.

Thanks again for the post.

keithsawyer - January 16, 2012

Thank you for a great comment! I spend hours every day working alone in my office. It’s the nature of writing. So I agree that the issue is one of emphasis. And there is some nuance in Cain’s article. I perceived it as an “attack” mostly because of the article’s title “The rise of the new groupthink.” Referring to collaboration as “groupthink” is an attack; it invokes Irving Janis’s 1972 book Groupthink which documented stupid decisions made by groups. But come to think of it, it was probably a New York Times editor, not the author, who came up with that headline.
Our difference in emphasis is probably rooted in personality differences. I’m an extreme extravert and I can never spend too much time with other people. So it’s no surprise that my 2007 book is about how conversation drives creativity. Susan Cain would probably call herself an introvert, and so it’s not surprising that she would write a book about solitude.
I wish we could engage in dialogue with Ms. Cain at a public panel! (Of course, as an extravert that’s what I WOULD want, isn’t it?)

2. Chris Grivas - January 16, 2012

Loved your critique as it hit many of the points in the article I knew to be misleading and addresses them with tact and facts. My book, “The Innovative Team” (with co-author Dr. Gerard Puccio) has just been released and I hope it can be a catalyst for changing the discussion about creativity from focusing on how people come up with ideas to one that encompasses the whole of the innovative process. What Gerard and I show is that people may prefer different parts of the process to others which influences both how they tend to use their creativity and how they work with others. Ms. Cain’s work (and perhaps your as well, from what I’ve read above) clearly demonstrates that people approach the world from their own individual perspectives and we promote what works best for us. By understanding our preferences for engaging in the creative process, we become armed with an understanding of how we might be able to help others use their creativity and how we can avoid getting in our own way.
Would love to hear your comments. And again, thank you for the terrific response.

keithsawyer - January 17, 2012

Your new book sounds wonderful! I look forward to reading “The Innovative Team.”

3. Jeff Freedman - January 16, 2012

Thank you Keith for this post. Much appreciated! I read her article and I found myself having a visceral aversion to what she was saying, even though there’s a level of ‘truth’ to what she’s saying. But, I’m glad you point out the limitations of her thinking, as it helped me understand why I was so frustrated by her article. It’s quite manipulative.

The reality is so much more complex. And I like your breakdown of her misleading ideas. Strange she’s on top 100. I read Group Genius a couple weeks ago. I really loved it. Couldn’t put it down. Co-creation is a topic I’m fascinated by. It’s the future.

I went to Wash U. Graduated in 99, but somehow I missed you. Psychology major. I think collaboration is essentially a way of learning, and I think you worked in department of Education. Anyway, I enjoy your posts, especially this one!!
Jeff

keithsawyer - January 17, 2012

Thank you so much for your kind words about my book Group Genius!
At Wash U, since 1996 I’ve been teaching “Psychology of Creativity” as one of my regular courses. It’s been a lot of fun, and it prepared me to write a textbook for the course called Explaining Creativity. The second edition was just published January 2012, take a look: http://www.explainingcreativity.com

4. John - January 17, 2012

Keith,

I like your post. I like Wayne’s response above to you too.

Why do we, humans gravitate to all or nothing thinking? Going to extremes takes less work and there are others in the extreme camps who agree with the extreme thinking. It is difficult work to find balance with others.

People, introverts and extroverts, have great personalities and strengths to add to others. We need others and we need “quiet” time but not all or nothing. There are two different topics here: community development which appeals to extroverts and personal development which appeals to introverts. However, extroverts need personal development and introverts need community development. Extroverts are more innovative in groups and introverts more innovative alone. Introverts don’t have to become extroverts and extroverts don’t have to become introverts.

Cain’s book appeals to introverts however everyone can benefit. Your book, Group Genius, appeals to extroverts but everyone is part of a group therefore can benefit. There are many who detest group involvement out of fear, because the environment is not controlled, and because group involvement is draining. Many feel guilty because they dislike group experiences. Others have bad memories of group experiences. So, since many great artistic works have been created alone therefore everybody ought to work alone. Obviously, this is extreme. Can we have some balance?

Thanks for your post.

keithsawyer - January 17, 2012

Why extremes? I think it’s because it sells. Publishers like books with a “hook” and a short pitch; better for media coverage…like getting into the New York Times. And then, the editors at the Times were the ones who made it seem even more extreme with the title they chose for the piece (using the term “groupthink”). On the other hand, scholars can sometimes be a bit TOO nuanced. Usually the real answer to any social science question is “it depends.” We don’t want the reader to fall asleep, lost in the details of various studies, either. I guess the solution, again, is balance! :)

5. Marian - January 17, 2012

Thank you so much for your response, Keith! As a creative artist, improviser and teacher this has been my experience. I was annoyed while reading Cain’s article and I thank you for pointing out all the reasons I was and am.

6. Maggie Kolkena - January 17, 2012

Thanks for your reasoned and well-researched response Keith. I found myself wishing that Ms. Cain had sub-titled her book :The Power of Introversion” instead of giving superior powers to a specific style preference. Ideally, we’re all developing versatility and the ability to cross style divides.

I’ve facilitated many ideation sessions. Style is just one explanation of how we contribute to the creative process. What about domain expertise and all the other factors that make a rich, creative soup?

7. keithsawyer - January 18, 2012

Update: Last night I was watching a documentary on the history of videogames. I learned that Jobs and Wozniak both worked at Atari, and that Wozniak designed the legendary videogame Breakout. One of the experts interviewed said that Wozniak’s first Apple computer was essentially a rip-off of the Atari hardware. As usual, the more details you learn about an invention, the less it seems like a story of solitude.

8. Defense of Collaboration Published in New York Times « Creativity & Innovation - January 19, 2012

[...] same day as my post below, I emailed a letter to the editor at the New York Times, and it was published today along with [...]

9. Michael Holloway - January 19, 2012

The arrogance of your final sentence is astounding: “If you hole up alone at home, I guarantee you will be less creative.” No, you can’t. No more than a medical doctor can guarantee that any particular medicine will have a particular effect. The doctor may be able to say that it has certain effects for a majority of people, but there will always be people for whom it has different effects. Existing studies may justify a qualified statement such as, “If you’re like most people, if you hole up at home ….” But an unqualified statement is without justification.

keithsawyer - January 19, 2012

Your point is well taken, I should not have said “guarantee.” I myself spend many hours each day writing, alone, in my home office. The actual typing of words and sentences is pretty solitary work. However, I would have nothing to write about if it weren’t for the many conversations, collaborations, and collegial interactions that also take place throughout my week, that’s where my ideas come from. By “hole up” what I meant to imply was “If you spend all of your time alone at home and you never interact with anyone else…” and that was not clear.

10. Gwen Lowenheim - January 20, 2012

Thank you Keith and respondents for this very rich conversation. As others have pointed out, Cain’s argument rests on a false dichotomy. Even though she concludes her article by calling for a nuanced use of collaboration and solitude to maximize creativity, she boxes herself in with the premise that there is something called “private time” in sharp distinction to “collaboration.” No better way to put a damper on creativity than to impose either/or thinking and then suggest that we find ways to connect the two falsely dichotomized elements of complex and rich human life (there are many examples of this, for instance the trend in universities to offer multidisciplinary programs to ‘bring together’ man-made separations called ‘subjects;’ insisting that the electorate be divided into two parties and then frantically calling for “bi” rather that “non” partisanship; holistic medicine to counter medical ‘specialties,’ etc). This kind of language game (in a Wittgensteinian sense) can lead to “mental mist” and wasted energy.

As an educator and community organizer in a world that’s begging for (and also coming up with) new out-of-the box solutions, my interest in these kinds of conversation is their contribution to everyday creativity. This kind of false dichotomy, though abstract, can alienate people from their own creative potential. And so I’m glad that we’ve taken Cain’s “offer” (in the improvisational sense) to explore this further. In that spirit, let’s take another look at what is meant by “solitude.” Keith describes it well – he spends many hours alone in his office writing but doesn’t conlcude that he is not collaborating during those alone times. The recognition that ideas are social dates back to the Greeks. What about our language, the concept of creativity, the desk you are writing on and the computer!

Human beings are social and historical, even when no one is talking to us. It’s wondrous to consider the myriad environments our species creates which support innovation. Ponder Stuart Kauffman’s concept of the “adjacent possible” or Lois Holzman’s “Without Creating ZPD’s There Is No Creativity.”

So if we go with Cain’s conclusion that people (young and old) work best in environments in which they work best (my summation), we have a very social and creative task ahead of us: figuring out how to collectively organize work and learning environments in ways that maximize potential. You can’t make that happen alone.

11. greggfraley - January 21, 2012

If I’d known you’d written this extensive rebuttal, I wouldn’t have taken the time to do one myself! I wrote a shorter piece and referenced Susan Robertson’s piece. As you say, she’s not all wrong, but overstates her case…

http://www.greggfraley.com/blog/?p=2658

12. Cameron D. Norman - January 22, 2012

Reblogged this on Censemaking and commented:
Keith Sawyer provides interesting commentary on a recent article on what could be the overuse / overstatement of collaboration and the undervaluing of solitude (see: The Rise of the New Groupthink – NYTimes.com http://nyti.ms/xII4NF). I think he has some good points to make, but I also agree that there is much we can gain from working independently when the time is right. The key is determining those times when we need to come together to solve problems or develop new ideas and when it is best to find solitude and reflect independently.

13. Shhhhhhhhhh! Does solitude enhance creativity? | EAST SIDE INSTITUTE COMMUNITY NEWS - January 23, 2012

[...] says Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. In a recent blog post he retorts that Cain’s thesis is “the frustrated cry of a true introvert.”  Says [...]

14. Kat Kopett - January 27, 2012

Thank you for this article and for your book.

I guess my thought is that there is a difference between distraction and collaboration. Not all interaction is productive, stimulating or generative. Not all solitude is either. Of course, wasted time is also necessary for the creative process, yes?

As the director of an improv group and a consultant who uses improv to improve organizational performance, I spend a lot of time heralding group creativity. AND, I know as a writer, instructional designer and teacher, I also need solitude. Lots of my time is less productive than I would like. But the space creates the opportunity.

15. Eva Vass - January 27, 2012

Hello Keith,
I have just restarted following your blog, after a period of ‘non-academic’ maternity leave. Naturally, having done a bit on collaborative creativity among children, I agree with your critique of Cain’s disregard or misinterpretation of relevant research. But, in line with my current interests, I would also like to distinguish between group-talk (and the quite frequent over-emphasis on talking, logical reasoning, verbal exchanges, which would drive an extroverted yet not necessarily verbally-inclined child or adult insane) and group experience, which can take an infinite number of forms of interconnectedness, and can also include periods of silence, time out, solitary sidetracks etc.

Indeed, problems (and life) are often complex, requiring somatic/sensory awareness and inquisitiveness. So the creative management of situations – whether they are solitary or collaborative, ‘real’ or ‘for fun’, educational or work-related, is definitely more than thinking and talking in the traditional sense.
These are just my initial thoughts – I am looking forward to following this discussion.

keithsawyer - January 27, 2012

Welcome back!

I like the distinction between “group talk” and “group experience” because a lot of collaboration is non-verbal (including musical, as with jazz, or bodily as with dance as you know!) and also collaboration can occur even when you’re not in the same space and not actually communicating right at that moment. “Distant collaboration,” like in the 19th century where a lot of collaboration occurred via letters. Everyone is sitting in their own room, apparently alone, and yet they are in communication all the time. It’s just a lot slower than email. (Speaking of which, I’ve been alone in my basement all day, and yet I’ve constantly checked two email accounts, responded to blog comments, and just had a 40-minute phone conference!)

16. Baylah Wolfe (@hummingbirdzzz) - February 2, 2012

Lowenheim’s response to Keith’s blog on Silence and Creativity above is a must read!

17. The Fortunes Of Solitude: Susan Cain On Introverts, The "New Groupthink," And The Problems With Brainstorming | The Hustlers Handbook - February 8, 2012

[...] But Keith Sawyer, author of 2007 book Group Genius, claims you’re missing the big picture–that “researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction.” [...]

18. Simon Bans - February 8, 2012

Coming to this argument with my artists hat on, great moments of creativity happen when you are alone in the studio. Playing undisturbed with your art is fantastic. Given that, you also need stimulus from the outside world to keep feeding this creativity going and developing and get some new energy going.
Collaborating on art projects is fantastic as you get to mix and mash plenty of ideas together and you also get great feedback on what you are creating.
As a business owner in the field of creativity, I cant wait it share ideas with the team and get their ideas and mix into a huge hotpot of creativity. I could not achieve what we do without this collaboration/sharing/feedback.
Spending time by myself however gives great time for contemplation and review and when the mind rests, plenty of ideas are unlocked from the subconscious. Plane trips are great for this.
On both an artistic sense and a business sense, collaboration and solitude both have a place in the creative/being productive process. There is no hard or fast rule for what works for who, that what’s makes us so interesting as humans, we are all different and amazing, regardless how we may all be grouped.

19. The Book Everyone is Talking About « Creativity & Innovation - February 20, 2012

[...] quick follow-up to my critical post about Susan Cain’s New York Times article: Am I the only person who finds it ironic that the big newspaper ad for her book has this text and [...]

20. Nurkhamid - February 20, 2012

Previous solitude works changing the world include holy people such as Buddha, Prophet Mohammad pbuh, Christ, etc., after being solitude regularly, they can influence the world and civilization until far thousands of years after their being pass-away.

So I agree, mastery of being solitude can enhance personal power to influence the world and including world creativity. Collaboration is only a little ingredient for spreading creativity previously found and culminated in being solitude sessions.

21. Jessica Symons - February 21, 2012

We need to take care in defining creativity here. Let’s say that creativity is the moment when inspiration strikes. So when inspiration comes with people together, the creativity is collaborative and when it comes alone, it is introspective.

But what if you have an inspired moment alone, while reflecting on a conversation. Does this mean that the creative moment is collaborative, since it comes out of reflection on a conversation, or introspective because it is a reflection on a conversation while alone.

When we look it like that, the distinction becomes nonsensical.

keithsawyer - February 21, 2012

I like Jessica’s way of looking at it. Yes, absolutely creative lives include both moments of solitude and moments of social interaction. I tend to see the social even in the solitary moments, because I believe that thought itself is fundamentally social…especially in creative lives. How would anyone ever have a good idea while alone, without having first had lots of encounters with texts, colleagues, inspiring friends, mentors?

22. Simon Banks - February 21, 2012

Heartily agree with Jessica and Keith. What works one day may not work the next or for another person, team, company. You never know what will happen next week which may influence your creative process – do you say to someone mid conversation, ‘I need to be in solitude now? I have just had an idea and I know that it only comes from solitude?’ Or do you refuse to leave your studio for some stimulus and freshness because all creative geniuses are introverts and you must be true to your cause?

23. Joyce Fischer - March 2, 2012

I think Susan Cain is arguing more for allowing solitary work, not abolishing collaboration. And it depends on the type of creativity you are considering. An artist or writer spends a lot of time alone. Some don’t function well in social situations. Others use social interaction as a break from solitary work; they refuel through social interaction.

The reason I tend to agree with Cain is not because of any scientific studies, but my own discomfort with forced group activities. There is never “equal participation” when groups are formed artificially, which in my opinion classroom groups always are. I feel uncomfortable when thrown into a group to work on a project that will then be graded based on results that may not agree with the ideas I would like to put forward. At the college level, I found this absurd. I don’t want any of my students to feel that way.

The opposite is also true. Some of my ESL students are incapable of producing independent work because have become so dependent on the group leader personalities that they cannot function on their own. Thus, we have extroverts that thrive in the group environment at the expense of introverts. Unfortunately, the introverts often fail to learn to write or speak independently, although their listening and reading skills may be fine. It’s the balance that counts.

24. the solitude leaders. « nolicwee - March 4, 2012

[...] Keith Sawyer has also critique Susan Cain and made very valid points about her idea. [...]

25. Jennie Swann - March 8, 2012

Great to learn that brainstorming is better than solitary work for generating ideas to solve complex, visual, spatial problems. Could you include some references to the research? Thanks :)

keithsawyer - March 9, 2012

That research is described in Chapter 4 of my book Group Genius. Here are one citation to a study I describe in the book:

Schwartz, D. L. (1995). The emergence of abstract representations in dyad problem solving. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 4(3), 321-354.

26. Några reflektioner för de introverta bland oss « Paulus Indomitus - March 12, 2012

[...] mer kreativa kommer från Keith Sawyer, en anhängare av gruppprocser – se hans blogginlägg http://keithsawyer.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/does-solitude-enhance-creativity-a-critique-of-susan-cai…. Se också blogginlägg som pekar på andra resultat som pekar i annan riktning, som  [...]

27. “I want to be alone” | Pourquoi - March 18, 2012

[...] working alone,” Cain writes, “and solitude is a catalyst to innovation.” Scientist Keith Sawyer was among those to respond publicly. While allowing that there’s a “grain of truth” to [...]

28. Karl - March 19, 2012

I never read the NY Times article but did enjoy her book. The way you describe the article seems to be quite oversimplified compared to what I remember reading. In the section that addresses group collaboration she more stressed that smaller groups outperformed larger ones and that online collaboration tools appeared to effective at removing some of the original hurdles to creative collaboration as first addressed by Osborne. She does highlight a lot of obstacles that face introverts in many different situations and often provides insights and sometimes coping methods.

From personal experience as an introvert and a inventor in a corporate setting, dyads are very effective and you seem to support that idea with some of your comments above. The connections between ideas tend to occur between two people (not twenty) and then they are often built on by two other pairings and so on. Creating an environment that supports that process seems to be crucial and often the missing element at least in corporate technical work.

keithsawyer - March 19, 2012

There is a long history of creative dyads. And there’s a great book about some of the most famous historical pairs, as well as contemporary pairs, by Vera John-Steiner called Creative Collaboration, I highly recommend it!

29. GenevieveK - March 31, 2012

I think we could do with clearer definition of terms. Creativity and innovation are not the same thing. And collaboration in groups is different from working with a trusted creative partner.

It seems the genius of the group will depend very much on who is in that group. The body politic can restrict and inspire individual. Any working artist understands the value of extro-pressure when space is allowed for intro-contemplation before an audible response is required.

Finally, I would appreciate it if someone would acknowledge that “research” is always biased, and must be considered in the socio-cultural contex in which it was pursued.

On a more personal note, as an Executive Coach and “expert” in Presentation Skills for large corporate cultures, I am simply glad to hear someone saying that introversion is valuable. People are punished in business for being quiet. If they weren’t, I’d be out of a job. And quite happily so.

30. A Pair is not a Crowd | the pluralsight blog - April 2, 2012

[...] Sawyer followed up with a well written Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration, as did Jon Evans, with Pair Programming Considered Harmful (where Jonconcludes that no, it’s not [...]

31. Introverts Do It Passionately and Creatively: How It’s Possible to Love Solitude and Be Popular | space2live - April 27, 2012

[...] creativity is based on in-depth immersion in a topic AND collaborative interaction (Keith Sawyer, Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration).  Space for both introverts and extroverts to shine and work together for the greater good. [...]

32. Collaboration or Working alone? Which is best for creativity? | © 2010 www.creativeteambuilding.com.au – Visualfunk: Australia’s premier creative team building programs: Creativity, Innovation, Facilitation, Keynotes, Learning and Development, Innova - May 2, 2012

[...] Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration [...]

33. michael krymis - May 2, 2012

Jake Barba
John Colter Beereboom
Michael Krymis

University of Colorado at Boulder
Department of Psychology

Dear Mr. Sawyer,

Your article critiquing Cain successfully avoids Cain’s argument, which does not “overstate her case” but is providing a much-needed balanced viewpoint in a society that is obviously geared towards the extrovert. Cain is arguing, first for more acknowledgement of introversion as an integral part of society, second she is pointing out an imbalance between the emphasis on “the new groupthink”, and lack of secluded thought. The evidence that Mrs. Cain provides in her article is lacking in cited research, and we will provide convincing research to support her claims. Our research first shows a important difference in introverts and extroverts regarding stimulation, secondly significant differences in learning styles between extroverts and introverts may show that overuse of groups in school may be detrimental, and finally the current emphasis of “the new groupthink” in business society has been shown to be inefficient.
You claim “breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas”. Cain argues that without private, solitary work, introverts will not bring their ideas to the table. Background noise is a reasonably common distracter in the workplace, one that is increased by the adoption of an open office plan. It is a basic variable that differs across these two points of view. Does it impact workers differentially? In 1982 an experiment was run at the University of Missouri in which previously identified groups of introverts and extroverts were studied in a task-based context. Participants were placed into a room with a tape recorder and a pair of headphones putting out pre-recorded white noise. They were asked to turn a dial on the device until the intensity of the noise was described as “just right”. These data were then recorded and analyzed.
It seems logical that in attempting to concentrate on work, all individuals would naturally choose the lowest setting on the scale in an attempt to minimize distraction. This was not the case. In keeping with the original hypothesis of the study, extroverts chose a significantly higher volume level than introverts across the board. What this indicates is that extroverts actively seek out higher levels of auditory stimulation in order to operate, while introverts in fact need the opposite. This result indicates that louder environments are going to adversely effect a portion of the population of your workspace and have no effect or even a positive effect on the rest.
This experiment only tests auditory cues, and white noise is a very different type of stimulation than the talking of a colleague. That being said, the basic conclusions are telling. What is proven experimentally is that certain types of people are going to need more silence in order to work. In terms of pure background sound stimulation, introverts need to be given the opportunity to spend some time thinking about problems alone and away from the noise of the main group at some point during the problem solving process in order to experience their optimal work environment.
Cain is critical of the new trend using collaborative groups in school classrooms, as she should be. While Cain does provide an outlook that is in favor of more independent learning in schools her real message is one of balance. One research study done by Gregory T. Fouts on the “Effects of being imitated and awareness on the behavior of introverted and extroverted youth” found that there is a significant difference in the reactions of mimicry between extroverts and introverts. Preadolescent children were divided into two groups depending on their levels of extroversion/introversion. The study involved having the children drop balls into a choice of 6 spots and the researcher would be sitting across from them performing the same task. The researchers were manipulating the children’s knowledge of being mimicked by subtly indicating they were mimicking the children or not mimicking them at all, and this produced a significant difference in response between extroverts and introverts. Specifically, when introverts were aware of being mimicked their number of responses went down from the control, and the opposite result was obtained for extroverts.
The importance of this research when applied to Cain’s argument is that it provides experimental proof that introverts and extroverts respond very differently to imitation, which may play an important role in learning. She is questioning group learning because of this dissimilarity. She does not say that it should have no role in schools, but that it needs to be used in moderation. You also hint at a “right way” for collaborative interaction in learning and I’m wondering what this might be? The point is, is that Cain provides a balanced and insightful view on groupthink used in schools and that there may be a problem with it.
Susan Cain brings to the forefront a valid point regarding the dangers of corporate leaders creating repressive environments for the many individuals who possess mainly introvert traits. As stated above, people more on either side of the extroversion/introversion scale do think, feel, learn and altogether view life differently, which can undoubtedly be a key asset when working on problems. The highly inefficient group collaborative structure Mrs. Cain alerts the populace to demonstrates that there is enough of a problem to dissuade introverted individuals from communicating their ideas resulting in a stymied business environment and impeding the beneficial communication that is in direct contrast to your statement “Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that’s because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas”(Sawyer). P.H. Grinyer relates the actual dynamics of business in his article “A Cognitive Approach to Group Strategic Decision Talking: A Discussion of Evolved Practice in the Light of Received Research Results”. Grinyer states that corporate rankings, hierarchy, and outgoing personalities dominate group behavior and discussions. Grinyer states “Empirical research has shown that both hierarchical power and extrovert personality are associated with more frequent contribution to and greater influence within group discussions. This may tend to reduce the quality of discussion…” (Grinyer 29). In addition, the lack of employees voicing their opinions leads to possible ideas never being heard. Grinyer states again in his article that the “Research suggests that groups are more likely to be innovative and creative where they compromise people with different types of personality, different experience or training, and different points of view” (Grinyer 27). Grinyer’s essay clearly demonstrates that to have the best collaboration different personalities are needed with those personalities being heard and not passed over. Cain is arguing that those with the different personalities are the introverts, which is backed up be Grinyer’s article.
“It’s the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone” (Sawyer). This sentence demonstrates the inaccurate view of introverts that Cain is trying to argue against. Introverts don’t all just want to “be left alone” they want to be recognized as an important part of society. The critique you provided seems to avoid and dismiss the idea that there is a major discrepancy regarding an extrovert ideal in society. The point is that there needs to be a realization that there is an extrovert ideal, and there is in fact a palpable difference between introverts and extroverts. This difference at the very least should be acknowledged and balance restored to the extroverted/introverted spectrum.

Works Cited

Cain, Susan. (2012). Quiet. New York. Crown Publishers.

Cain, Susan. (2012). The Rise of The New Groupthink. New York Times

Fouts, G.T. The Effects of Being Imitated and Awareness of Behavior of Introverted and Extroverted Youth. Child Development, Vol. 46, 296-300. 1975.

Geen, Russel G. (1984). Preferred stimulation levels in introverts and extroverts: Effects on arousal and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 46(6), 1303-1312.

Grinyer, P.H (2000). A cognitive approach to group strategic decision taking: a discussion of evolved practice in the light of received research results. The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 51. No. 1: 21-35. Palgrave Macmillan Journals.

keithsawyer - May 3, 2012

Thank you for that well-reasoned and extended comment! And for the citations.

Yes, I agree with Cain that society certainly has a bias towards extroverts. I have an old clipping from Business Week magazine, the column that Jack Welch wrote, advising the reader to try hard to be more extroverted because it will make you more successful in business.

I look forward to reading those citations. There is certainly a lot of research that groups higher in “cognitive diversity” are more innovative and creative; I make that point in one of my own review articles.

Brainstorming groups are more effective when led by a trained facilitator, and one of the jobs of the facilitator is to make sure that even the quiet voices are heard, and not shut down by the more talkative extroverts.

34. Group Collaboration and Creativity « People-triggers - June 4, 2012

[...] wrote a detailed if condescending rebuttal to Susan Cain. He says that Cain “misses the big picture” by downplaying the active [...]

35. Being Alone | Be Your Whole Self - January 1, 2014

[…] ideas: leave me alone. Others were quick to point out the substantial research on the benefit of collaboration when it comes to creativity or generating […]

36. Mike - March 15, 2014

G. Bruno, Galileo, Emerson, Thoreau, and too many other creative geniuses disagree with what you state. Sitting alone and thinking deeply, uninterrupted, has done more for me intellectually, than all of my schooling and “group work.” When I present my “thinking” to friends they may find holes ( which I am seeking) but they usually just bring up the surface level thoughts that are easily dismissed.
Perhaps we are discussing different types of thinking, but your ideas do not resonate with my experiences.

keithsawyer - March 15, 2014

With the success of Susan Cain’s book, it is now obvious that there are lots of introverts who were receptive to her argument that solitude is the key to success. But I think one should be suspicious of creation stories that align too closely with our culture’s dominant creativity myths. Especially with the 19th century Romantics and transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau, the idealogy of the time was that of the solitary lone genius, inspired by nature, and repressed and constrained by society. Those writers typically exaggerated their stories of how they generated their works, to make it seem as if they had been hit with a sudden inspiration. For example, in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity, I debunk the myth that Coleridge came up with his poem Kubla Khan in an opium haze. (The scholarship is pretty strong on this and dates back to the 1920s.) The same applies to Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau…yes, there are solitary moments in everyone’s creative process, but they are a small component of a much longer and larger process that is social and culturally embedded. In pretty much every case, once you dig beneath the sound bite version of the creative moment, you find it was not at all solitary and sudden. (I debunk many such stories in my 2007 book Group Genius.)

I’m sorry to hear that your friends only see the superficial level…either you need deeper friends :) or you need to better communicate the deep essence of your thought. In my experience too, most people focus on the surface and have more difficulty seeing the deeper underlying conceptual structures.

Mike - March 15, 2014

I feel as though you offer some logical fallacies to counter my points. (Introverts agree with Cain because it validates them. Emerson exaggerated etc…)
I have been thinking on the complete irrelevance and illogical structure of public school for nearly 5 years. The level of impenetrable group think that surrounds the institution of school is unbelievable. When you get a group of people together to discuss changing school, it is darn near impossible for that group to not think of school within the only paradigm they have ever known.
Also, who will debunk your debunking? :)
Groups seem to encourage humble bragging, bruised egos, and competition. Even when everyone agrees to not let that happen.

37. keithsawyer - March 16, 2014

Thank you again for your comment! There is not really an opposition here. The creative process requires both solitary time and group time, so “we both are right” basically. My only argument is with people who try to argue that it is all about solitary inspiration, and that groups mostly interfere with the creative process. All of the empirical and historical evidence makes it clear that extreme position is inconsistent with how creativity actually happens. Some of what Susan Cain says is true, but her “soundbite” claim that solitude enhances creativity, and that groups interfere with creativity, is a misrepresentation of what we know about how creativity works. (I say “soundbite” because I’m sure she knows the real story is more complicated, just as I’m saying.) And, many of the canonical invention stories, that make it seem like creativity emerged in isolation, upon further examination turn out to be misrepresentations of what actually happened. I gave the example of Coleridge; if you read my 2007 book GROUP GENIUS you will learn of many, many more such false stories about solitary inspiration.

38. East Side Institute Community News » Shhhhhhhhhh! Does solitude enhance creativity? - July 28, 2014

[…] says Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. In a recent blog post he retorts that Cain’s thesis is “the frustrated cry of a true introvert.”  Says […]


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