This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Juli Breines and first appeared on Psych Your Mind on June 29th.

IntrovertA co-worker once told me that he was a “sticker.” At parties, he stuck in one place and let people come to him (like a wallflower but with a more positive connotation). In other words, he was the opposite of a social butterfly, and he seemed totally fine with that. My immediate reaction was not entirely positive – his strategy seemed lazy (why did everyone else have to do the work?) and even rude. And yet, as I examined my own behavior, I realized that my natural inclination at big gatherings was often the same as his. The difference was that I felt it was important to be outgoing and so I made the extra effort. Although my shyness wasn’t severe or debilitating, I saw it as something I needed to overcome – and most people feel this way. There are hundreds of self-help books focused on fighting shyness, and many consider shyness to be a form of social anxiety, a serious mental illness.

The downsides of shyness – even the mild forms – are widely known. Shy people tend to be lonelier and have fewer friends, and they are sometimes mistaken as cold and aloof. Avoiding social situations and failing to take risks can also limit employment opportunities: at work, shy people may be less likely to ask for a promotion or pursue a leadership role. In relationships, shyness can prevent people from approaching a romantic interest or disclosing their feelings. There is even some evidence that shyness can impair health. Shyness seems to be especially problematic when people are making the transition to college or to a new job, since the ability to reach out and establish new contacts is critical at these times. (For a more exhaustive review of the perils of shyness, see Philip Zimbardo’s book or his Psychology Today article co-authored with Bernardo Carducci.)

Most of what you’ll read about shyness is almost exclusively negative, and yet research suggests that at least 40% of Americans are chronically shy. A much higher number experience more temporary or situational shyness, making shyness “nearly universal”, according to prominent psychologists. If shyness is so bad, why is it so common? Recent research suggests that shyness may have benefits not only for individuals, but for groups and societies as well.

Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book QUIET: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, recently wrote a fascinating article for the New York Times making the case for shyness as a virtue. Here are some of the highlights:

PumpkinseedAnimal research suggests that around 20% of a given species is a “sitter” type rather than a “rover” (“sitter being the equivalent to my co-worker’s “sticker” strategy). “Sitters” are more watchful and vigilant, whereas rovers are more daring and reckless. Both strategies can have advantages or disadvantages, depending on the situation. In a series of studies conducted by David Sloan Wilson, “sitter” pumpkinseed sunfish didn’t do so well when placed in an unfamiliar environment (where “rovers” thrived), but because of their more cautious approach they successfully avoided what could have been a deadly trap set up by the experimenter. Wilson argues that diversity in animal personality is an essential part of group survival and evolved for a reason. The same is likely true for humans – just as couples with complementary immunities produce hardier offspring, group members who have different strengths (and different weaknesses) make the group stronger and more effective.

Research in humans suggests that introverts (introversion is generally considered a less anxious form of shyness) are less likely than extroverts to have affairs, engage in risky sexual behavior, or get into car accidents, and there is some evidence that introverts perform better in school, presumably because they have more time for studying. Foresight, caution, and an ability to listen attentively are useful traits in many professions, ranging from counseling to judiciary work. Introverts also seem better able to tolerate jobs that involve lots of alone time and intense focus, such as engineering and computer programming (in other words, these are the people behind many of our most significant technological innovations). Furthermore, some of history’s greatest writers and artists struggled with shyness, an affliction that may have fortuitously led them to discover more indirect modes of communication and create beautiful works of art. Some scholars believe that shy people need less external stimulation (e.g., loud concerts, crazy parties) to feel fulfilled – instead, they tend to notice and appreciate the little things.

Although there are also many cases where shyness hurts rather than helps, certain forms of shyness – when properly nurtured – may in fact be valuable attributes. Cain offers some great suggestions on her website for embracing shyness. For example:
#9 “Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.”
#10 “Rule of thumb for networking events: One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.”
#15 “Love is essential, gregariousness is optional”
#16 “In a gentle way, you can shake the world” – Gandhi

Other ideas:

Peekaboo1. Remember that a certain degree of social anxiety or embarrassment is a sign that you care, not that there is something wrong with you (sociopaths generally fail to show self-conscious emotions). As a teaching assistant, I once blushed when introducing myself to a large lecture hall, and the professor kindly reminded the class that my pink cheeks were a sign of prosociality (which of course led to more blushing).

2. If you experience physiological symptoms like a racing heartbeat or shaking in scary situations, find ways to reappraise these physical signs in more positive ways. For example, research conducted by Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues found that participants who construed their test anxiety as a challenge rather than a threat (i.e., as something that would improve rather than hurt performance) consequently performed better on the GRE test. In other words, it wasn’t the anxiety itself that was necessarily the problem, but the anxiety about the anxiety. The authors note that a similar approach can be used in other domains, such as receiving criticism from a professor. It may also be relevant in non-academic domains: for example, interpreting a flutter of nervousness about a big date or important social event as excitement as opposed to fear could help make the event go more smoothly.

Butterfly3. Do push through your fears when there is something you really want to accomplish (or someone you really want to ask out!). Embracing shyness doesn’t mean never putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. But it also doesn’t require forcing yourself to be someone you’re not, and for a lot of people that’s a huge relief.

Further reading:

Baumeister, R., & Scher, S. (1988). Self-defeating behavior patterns among normal individuals: Review and analysis of common self-destructive tendencies. Psychological Bulletin, 104 (1), 3-22 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.104.1.3

Jamieson, J., Mendes, W., Blackstock, E., & Schmader, T. (2010). Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 208-212 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.08.015

Schmitt, D. (2004). The Big Five related to risky sexual behaviour across 10 world regions: differential personality associations of sexual promiscuity and relationship infidelity European Journal of Personality, 18 (4), 301-319 DOI: 10.1002/per.520

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