Sunday, July 24, 2011

New York Times article: Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?

Dear Friends,

An article appeared in the New York Times on June 25th, 2011, called Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic? by Susan Cain. It is another in a series of great articles drawing attention to the strengths of shyness and a shy temperament, what the author describes as a "careful, sensitive temperament." I want to draw it to your attention because the article is a piece in a growing number of articles and books that debunk ordinary shyness as a mental disorder and mentions again the role that pharmaceutical companies played in the 1990's in pathologizing shyess in order to sell SSRI's. Remember Christopher Lane's book, Shyness, How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. If you haven't read it, it is a great book. Apparently Susan Cain has a book coming out as well on introversion, which is often associated with shyness.

I use Social fitness, too, as an evolutionary metaphor, also based on the idea that shyness is adaptive, and thus has survived. We all have temperaments to manage, with different strengths and vulnerabilities, and, because social interaction is negotiated between people there is not one set of perfect social skills either. We learn by accepting each other as we are and giving each other feedback about what works well for us in social interaction and what we can do to make our interactions better. I have long believed that shyness is a valuable trait, given my experience at the Shyness Clinic where I observed so much adaptive, considerate, thoughtful behavior toward each other in groups. Clients would tell me they needed to learn social skills, but when they weren't nervous and distracted by automatic thoughts, or very concerned about being negatively evaluated, most showed highly skilled behavior.

Given that only around 2% of college students say that they have never experienced shyness, and between 50% and 60% say they are shy currently (see Bernie Carducci's research) it certainly seems that shyness would qualify as an adaptive trait. In fact, I believe, along with many emotion theorists, that shyness is a basic human emotion, a blend of fear and interest, that we all experience. I also think that because human vulnerability is finally becoming a topic that is more openly discussed in the U.S., and because we are beginning to accept the idea that we all are shy sometimes, particularly when things are important to us, and that we cannot be intimate if we are not vulnerable, that we all may begin to be able to disarm and truly value and appreciate each other.

Have a good day!


  1. I think it is striking that it is much easier to find resources that help to reshape one's own, presumed "oddness" than those that advise the presumably "normal" to understand and adapt to others. I was trying to find some ideas to suggest to my child, a freshman in college, with a very, very shy roommate. Because my child has a complex and rocky history with anxiety that has manifested itself quite differently, I have been able to offer cautions to be compassionate on that basis alone. But I would love to be able to suggest more. Most of what there is out there is, however, suggestions to conform, and not to use compassion constructively to build diverse social relationships.

  2. Yours is a great point, Sylvie. I agree that using compassion constructively to understand and appreciate differences, and to learn from each other in the process, is the way through the stereotyping that can separate us. Research on mindfulness and compassion is also showing us that everyone has negative automatic thoughts, everyone struggles with their own challenges, and at the same time everyone can contribute and can love. I developed the social fitness model because, like physical fitness it is a lifelong process of working out and learning what works for us and works with others to live well together.