In Garrison Keillor’s mythical prairie hometown of Lake Wobegon [correct], where the women are strong, the men are good-looking and all the children are above average, almost everybody, man woman or child, seems to be shy. Social interactions are always stilted. Teenage boys lapse into sweaty-palmed palpitating silence in the presence of girls and vice versa. The thought of speaking up in front of a group of friends is almost enough to cause a heart attack. Nobody asks their boss for a pay rise, ever.
According to Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, who is one of the pioneers of modern research on shyness, the rest of the world is nearly as bad. Research on shyness has traditionally focused on children but in the 1970s the first systematic surveys of shyness among adults revealed that about 40 per cent of adults in the US are chronically shy. Another 40 per cent describe themselves as “formerly shy” and 15 percent more as “shy in some situations”. Only 5 per cent have never been shy.
The incidence of chronic shyness has been rising over the last decade and is now about 50 per cent. The US is somewhere in the middle of the international shyness league table. Undisputed leaders are Japan and Korea with close to 60 per cent. Israel languishes (sanely) at the bottom of the table with only 31 per cent of the population suffering from shyness.
Shyness is more than just a preference for your own company. “If you are happy being left on your own you may simply be an introvert” says Robin Banerjee [correct] of Sussex University. Shy people are not happy on their own. They want to participate in social encounters and interact with others, but they are held back by the fear that they will fail, or that other people will think badly of them. They avoid social encounters and avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Shyness can be restricted to particular situations, usually those where it is difficult to predict what will happen. A person may genuinely be extroverted in situations where they know the rules, but where they do not they are overwhelmed by self-consciousness, by the feeling that everybody is watching them.
Nobody who has experienced the pounding heart, sweaty palms and dry mouth will doubt that shyness has a biological component. It can run in families and its precursors can be detected in the cradle. At two months of age about 15 per cent of infants show physiological signs of distress, including a raised heart rate, vigorous limb movements and crying, when presented with novel stimuli. Some 75 per cent of these infants continue to be shy through late childhood and often through to adolescence and adulthood.
However one of the essential components of shyness is the feeling that other people are evaluating us. Very young children cannot appreciate that other people have their own thoughts and ideas, so they cannot be truly shy. Ray Crozier of Cardiff University finds that young children can have fearful reactions to strangers, but it is only after they are about five years old that they begin to worry about what others will think of them rather than what they will do to them.
Shyness can be treated, either with drugs or with behavioural therapies. Anti anxiety drugs – including Prozac – have been used with some success. However treatments that change the way shy people think or the way they behave should be more durable. Zimbardo, in collaboration with Lynne Henderson of the Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, California, has developed a range of treatments in which shy people are trained in the social skills needed to cope with a threatening situation and exposed to the situation in role-play*.
According to Banerjee treatments based on training in social skills can be very successful, but they do not generalise. You have to learn the skills for each situation. His background is in studying the social cognitive development of children, particularly how they develop the ability to influence the way in which others see them. From his perspective, a primary cause of shyness is a deeply-held but often unrealistic conviction that other people are thinking poorly of us.
He has been working with Zimbardo and Henderson to develop a training programme for children that will enable them to learn to see themselves as others really see them, rather than to develop the gloomy caricature that is the root cause of shyness. The Sunnyvale School District in California has funded the development of the programme and is using it in schools. Banerjee is looking for Local Education Authorities in the UK that would be interested in developing a similar programme tailored for English schoolchildren. If he is successful, the children of Sussex will be even further above average than those of Lake Wobegone.
*More details at https://www.shyness.com/encyclopedia.html