My view of shyness
Tomkins, an early emotion researcher, found that shyness is a basic human emotion, a blend of fear and interest. We experience it in new situations, situations that are important for survival, like mating situations, work situations, and those where we are being evaluated. Only seven percent of the population says they never experience shyness.
I wonder how much of that is a self-enhancing personality trait, because shyness is not fashionable in our society (although that may be changing with the popularity and success of the geek culture). Jerome Kagan and Nancy Sidman found that some children are born with a slightly more sensitive arousal system. These children are a bit more likely to develop habitual shyness, a personality trait. However, for any given child it is impossible to predict who will become shy because so much of our personality styles are due to the environments in which we develop. With warm, empathic parenting and the expectation that a child participate in age appropriate activities, children may not become habitually shy. Another interesting finding is that sensitivity is often associated with being intellectually gifted. I’ll write more on this in future posts. Many shy people do well in advanced education, perhaps due to their ability to work alone. Many also become effective “niche pickers”, (a term coined by a psychologist whose name evades me). Being an effective “niche picker” simply means that people will often choose optimal situations for their personality styles. Shy people may choose collaborative environments where intense competition is not valued, and people work for a common goal without excessive regard for status, often what are termed “lean mean teams”, with people operating independently and together in a flexible way, where every voice on the team is considered to be important.
Some people become problematically shy, in that their shyness interferes with meeting life goals in social relationships and work settings. A small percentage may go on to experience more debilitating emotional pain and avoidance, which is called social anxiety disorder, around 13% of the population, and, with high avoidance levels, according to the diagnostic and statistical manual, avoidant personality disorder. It is correlated with introversion, but many shy people are extraverted. Paul Pilkonis and Philip Zimbardo discovered in the 70’s that there were two types of shyness, public and private. Those with public shyness could be identified by others as quiet or non-assertive. Although, the authors also found that whether or not someone was shy was often hard to identify, with fellow college students being accurate only around 15% of the time. Those with private shyness were socially skilled and outgoing, but felt that, if people really knew them, they would be found wanting. I believe that we all feel that way, that these are basic issues around being human, but, again, in our competitive, materialistic society, people are often not willing to disclose human experiences because they fear they will be devalued, which can often be the case, particularly by self-enhancers who believe they are “better” than they actually are. Some of these patterns may change with the influence of Eastern thought, meditation, mindfulness classes, and compassion-focused views of the human condition. Researchers, such as Paul Gilbert in England, are working on these ideas. Gilbert has an evolutionary biopsychosocial theory that he is applying to treatment for depression, but also to the human condition, which means all of us.
Lynne Henderson, PhD . Dr. Henderson is also a faculty member in Continuing Studies at Stanford University. She was a visiting scholar in the Psychology Department from 1994-2007. She studied empathic responses in shy and non-shy college students, and the relationship between “irritating behaviors” and interpersonal motives with Leonard Horowitz. She also conducted research on personality variables related to shyness, and use of technology in the shy and non-shy with Philip Zimbardo.