More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?
By SUSAN CAIN, New York Times
June 25, 2011

A BEAUTIFUL woman lowers her eyes demurely beneath a hat. In an earlier era, her gaze might have signaled a mysterious allure. But this is a 2003 advertisement for Zoloft, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (S.S.R.I.) approved by the F.D.A. to treat social anxiety disorder. ?Is she just shy? Or is it Social Anxiety Disorder?? reads the caption, suggesting that the young woman is not alluring at all. She is sick.

But is she?

It is possible that the lovely young woman has a life-wrecking form of social anxiety. There are people too afraid of disapproval to venture out for a job interview, a date or even a meal in public. Despite the risk of serious side effects ? nausea, loss of sex drive, seizures ? drugs like Zoloft can be a godsend for this group.

But the ad?s insinuation aside, it?s also possible the young woman is ?just shy,? or introverted ? traits our society disfavors. One way we manifest this bias is by encouraging perfectly healthy shy people to see themselves as ill.

This does us all a grave disservice, because shyness and introversion ? or more precisely, the careful, sensitive temperament from which both often spring ? are not just normal. They are valuable. And they may be essential to the survival of our species.

Theoretically, shyness and social anxiety disorder are easily distinguishable. But a blurry line divides the two. Imagine that the woman in the ad enjoys a steady paycheck, a strong marriage and a small circle of close friends ? a good life by most measures ? except that she avoids a needed promotion because she?s nervous about leading meetings. She often criticizes herself for feeling too shy to speak up.

What do you think now? Is she ill, or does she simply need public-speaking training?

Before 1980, this would have seemed a strange question. Social anxiety disorder did not officially exist until it appeared in that year?s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-III, the psychiatrist?s bible of mental disorders, under the name ?social phobia.? It was not widely known until the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies received F.D.A. approval to treat social anxiety with S.S.R.I.?s and poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising its existence. The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-IV, acknowledges that stage fright (and shyness in social situations) is common and not necessarily a sign of illness. But it also says that diagnosis is warranted when anxiety ?interferes significantly? with work performance or if the sufferer shows ?marked distress? about it. According to this definition, the answer to our question is clear: the young woman in the ad is indeed sick.

The DSM inevitably reflects cultural attitudes; it used to identify homosexuality as a disease, too. Though the DSM did not set out to pathologize shyness, it risks doing so, and has twice come close to identifying introversion as a disorder, too. (Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shy people fear negative judgment; introverts simply prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments.)

But shyness and introversion share an undervalued status in a world that prizes extroversion. Children?s classroom desks are now often arranged in pods, because group participation supposedly leads to better learning; in one school I visited, a sign announcing ?Rules for Group Work? included, ?You can?t ask a teacher for help unless everyone in your group has the same question.? Many adults work for organizations that now assign work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value ?people skills? above all. As a society, we prefer action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable and even smarter than slow ones. As the psychologists William Hart and Dolores Albarracin point out, phrases like ?get active,? ?get moving,? ?do something? and similar calls to action surface repeatedly in recent books.

Yet shy and introverted people have been part of our species for a very long time, often in leadership positions. We find them in the Bible (?Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?" asked Moses, whom the Book of Numbers describes as ?very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.?) We find them in recent history, in figures like Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein, and, in contemporary times: think of Google?s Larry Page, or Harry Potter?s creator, J. K. Rowling.

In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher?s words: ?The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ?Paradise Lost? was dashed off by a party animal.?

We even find ?introverts? in the animal kingdom, where 15 percent to 20 percent of many species are watchful, slow-to-warm-up types who stick to the sidelines (sometimes called ?sitters?) while the other 80 percent are ?rovers? who sally forth without paying much attention to their surroundings. Sitters and rovers favor different survival strategies, which could be summed up as the sitter?s ?Look before you leap? versus the rover?s inclination to ?Just do it!? Each strategy reaps different rewards.

IN an illustrative experiment, David Sloan Wilson, a Binghamton evolutionary biologist, dropped metal traps into a pond of pumpkinseed sunfish. The ?rover? fish couldn?t help but investigate ? and were immediately caught. But the ?sitter? fish stayed back, making it impossible for Professor Wilson to capture them. Had Professor Wilson?s traps posed a real threat, only the sitters would have survived. But had the sitters taken Zoloft and become more like bold rovers, the entire family of pumpkinseed sunfish would have been wiped out. ?Anxiety? about the trap saved the fishes? lives.

Next, Professor Wilson used fishing nets to catch both types of fish; when he carried them back to his lab, he noted that the rovers quickly acclimated to their new environment and started eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this situation, the rovers were the likely survivors. ?There is no single best ... [animal] personality,? Professor Wilson concludes in his book, ?Evolution for Everyone,? ?but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.?

The same might be said of humans, 15 percent to 20 percent of whom are also born with sitter-like temperaments that predispose them to shyness and introversion. (The overall incidence of shyness and introversion is higher ? 40 percent of the population for shyness, according to the psychology professor Jonathan Cheek, and 50 percent for introversion. Conversely, some born sitters never become shy or introverted at all.)

Once you know about sitters and rovers, you see them everywhere, especially among young children. Drop in on your local Mommy and Me music class: there are the sitters, intently watching the action from their mothers? laps, while the rovers march around the room banging their drums and shaking their maracas.

Relaxed and exploratory, the rovers have fun, make friends and will take risks, both rewarding and dangerous ones, as they grow. According to Daniel Nettle, a Newcastle University evolutionary psychologist, extroverts are more likely than introverts to be hospitalized as a result of an injury, have affairs (men) and change relationships (women). One study of bus drivers even found that accidents are more likely to occur when extroverts are at the wheel.

In contrast, sitter children are careful and astute, and tend to learn by observing instead of by acting. They notice scary things more than other children do, but they also notice more things in general. Studies dating all the way back to the 1960?s by the psychologists Jerome Kagan and Ellen Siegelman found that cautious, solitary children playing matching games spent more time considering all the alternatives than impulsive children did, actually using more eye movements to make decisions. Recent studies by a group of scientists at Stony Brook University and at Chinese universities using functional M.R.I. technology echoed this research, finding that adults with sitter-like temperaments looked longer at pairs of photos with subtle differences and showed more activity in brain regions that make associations between the photos and other stored information in the brain.

Once they reach school age, many sitter children use such traits to great effect. Introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, stay on task, and work accurately, earn disproportionate numbers of National Merit Scholarship finalist positions and Phi Beta Kappa keys, according to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, a research arm for the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator ? even though their I.Q. scores are no higher than those of extroverts. Another study, by the psychologists Eric Rolfhus and Philip Ackerman, tested 141 college students? knowledge of 20 different subjects, from art to astronomy to statistics, and found that the introverts knew more than the extroverts about 19 subjects ? presumably, the researchers concluded, because the more time people spend socializing, the less time they have for learning.

THE psychologist Gregory Feist found that many of the most creative people in a range of fields are introverts who are comfortable working in solitary conditions in which they can focus attention inward. Steve Wozniak, the engineer who founded Apple with Steve Jobs, is a prime example: Mr. Wozniak describes his creative process as an exercise in solitude. ?Most inventors and engineers I?ve met are like me,? he writes in ?iWoz,? his autobiography. ?They?re shy and they live in their heads. They?re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone ... Not on a committee. Not on a team.?

Sitters? temperaments also confer more subtle advantages. Anxiety, it seems, can serve an important social purpose; for example, it plays a key role in the development of some children?s consciences. When caregivers rebuke them for acting up, they become anxious, and since anxiety is unpleasant, they tend to develop pro-social behaviors. Shy children are often easier to socialize and more conscientious, according to the developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska. By 6 they?re less likely than their peers to cheat or break rules, even when they think they can?t be caught, according to one study. By 7 they?re more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits such as empathy.

When I shared this information with the mother of a ?sitter? daughter, her reaction was mixed. ?That is all very nice,? she said, ?but how will it help her in the tough real world?? But sensitivity, if it is not excessive and is properly nurtured, can be a catalyst for empathy and even leadership. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, was a courageous leader who was very likely a sitter. Painfully shy and serious as a child, she grew up to be a woman who could not look away from other people?s suffering ? and who urged her husband, the constitutionally buoyant F.D.R., to do the same; the man who had nothing to fear but fear itself relied, paradoxically, on a woman deeply acquainted with it.

Another advantage sitters bring to leadership is a willingness to listen to and implement other people?s ideas. A groundbreaking study led by the Wharton management professor Adam Grant, to be published this month in The Academy of Management Journal, found that introverts outperform extroverts when leading teams of proactive workers ? the kinds of employees who take initiative and are disposed to dream up better ways of doing things. Professor Grant notes that business self-help guides often suggest that introverted leaders practice their communication skills and smile more. But, he told me, it may be extrovert leaders who need to change, to listen more and say less.

What would the world would look like if all our sitters chose to medicate themselves? The day may come when we have pills that ?cure? shyness and turn introverts into social butterflies ? without the side effects and other drawbacks of today?s medications. (A recent study suggests that today?s S.S.R.I.?s not only relieve social anxiety but also induce extroverted behavior.) The day may come ? and might be here already ? when people are as comfortable changing their psyches as the color of their hair. If we continue to confuse shyness with sickness, we may find ourselves in a world of all rovers and no sitters, of all yang and no yin.

As a sitter who enjoys an engaged, productive life, and a professional speaking career, but still experiences the occasional knock-kneed moment, I can understand why caring physicians prescribe available medicine and encourage effective non-pharmaceutical treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

But even non-medical treatments emphasize what is wrong with the people who use them. They don?t focus on what is right. Perhaps we need to rethink our approach to social anxiety: to address the pain, but to respect the temperament that underlies it. The act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament. Ridding people of social unease need not involve pathologizing their fundamental nature, but rather urging them to use its gifts.

It?s time for the young woman in the Zoloft ad to rediscover her allure.

Daniel E.
Positive Aspects of Shyness
by Lynne Henderson, Ph.D.

Those who are shy are not particularly motivated to have the upper hand, to be forceful with others, to be seen as number one and control others; they are more concerned with connecting with others, getting along, and doing a good job. People who report being shy use what researchers have called the “pause to check” approach. That is, they sort of “case the joint” before they participate. People with this temperament may be considered every bit as well adjusted as those with a bold temperament who charge in, participating immediately. Those who are very bold may not be as sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others. The only time shyness becomes a problem and may be painful, even debilitating, is when bad experiences and events in your life (for example, frequent moves, the loss of a parent, or constant criticism at home or school), deprivation, or frequent rejection make normal shyness and sensitivity a hardship.

Shy children tend to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others. They are likely to be helpful to classmates, behaving in cooperative and altruistic ways, and to show sympathy to children in distress. We also know that children who behave in this way—using what psychologists call prosocial behavior—are likely to behave in similar ways as young adults. And indeed, shy adolescents are also likely to be sympathetic to others, unless they are in severe personal distress and their focus is directed inward on their anxiety and unhappiness. If you’re feeling that bad, it’s hard to see what others are feeling and needing.

Shy children are physically healthier than nonshy children when their parents and teachers are warm, benign, and supportive, but if they aren’t supported and are under stress, they may suffer more from allergies than nonshy children. When children or adults who are particularly aware of and sensitive to others are put in a highly competitive, nonaccepting, callous environment, they begin to withdraw and avoid other people. At this point it may be in their best interests to get out of that environment and look for one that is more collaborative and supportive. In the case of shy children, this is a judgment call that parents need to make—but not by overprotecting a child, for example, keeping the child home from school or another child’s party because of shyness. These are normal life experiences that give children the opportunity to reduce shyness with experience and practice.

I think of shy people as canaries in our social coal mines; just as the birds were the first to notice the presence of toxic gas that endangered the miners, so shy people may be the first to notice when a social environment changes from supportive and inclusive to competitive and cliquey. People who are thicker skinned may not notice these changes until later, by which time it may be too late to change the prevailing milieu without considerable effort. Listening to the perceptions of shy people can help us all deliberately “niche pick” as we determine which situations are compassionate environments.

We all need people to support us, love us, listen to us. These universal needs can play to the strengths of our shy emotions and to those of us with shy temperaments, who tend to be good listeners, supportive, loyal, and constant. These are compassionate qualities. When we are compassionate to others, they tend to respond to us with compassion. In fact, research on interpersonal relationships reveals that one of the basic tendencies of human beings is the reciprocity of friendliness: when we smile and are friendly, people are friendly back. Interestingly, people tend to be complementary in terms of dominance. When we are submissive, others will lead, and when we are assertive, others will defer to our lead. For shy people, the trick is to smile and extend friendliness to evoke a friendly response, and to learn to be more assertive in cases where others tend to be consistently dominant or have difficulty following. People in shyness groups are often surprised to find that others will follow them when they suggest activities, put forward ideas, and behave more assertively.

Another interesting thing about the way shy people behave is that it often involves cooperation and maintaining trusting relationships, rather than dominating and defeating others. I have a videotape of clients at my shyness clinic role-playing in an exercise involving choosing several people who will escape the demise of the earth in a spaceship. With their permission, I showed it at a conference. In the video, these clients were polite and good at taking turns and listening, and they gave their own opinions and efficiently solved the problem. The audience was suitably impressed.

excerpted from The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Building Social Confidence: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Overcome Shyness and Social Anxiety

Daniel E.
"It was the failures who had always won, but by the time they won they had come to be called successes. This is the final paradox, which men call evolution."

~ Loren Eiseley, "The Inner Galaxy"

Daniel E.

I used to think of my shyness and social anxiety as a disorder—something wrong with me. As if I got unlucky and inherited a genetic defect...

If we were to encounter any new people outside of our tribe, it made perfect sense to fear and avoid them. They could be dangerous and potentially kill us and our tribe. Therefore, shyness was beneficial. It could save us and our loved ones' lives...

The beauty of evolution is that it ensures a variety of traits in individuals to help strengthen the overall survival of the species...
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