This article is adapted from Why am I shy?, an episode of CrowdScience presented by Datshiane Navanayagam and produced by Cathy Edwards. To listen to more episodes of CrowdScience from the BBC World Service, please click here.
Does the idea of mingling at a party send cold fingers of dread creeping up your spine? Or the thought of giving a presentation in front of a room full of people make you feel physically sick?
If so, then you are not alone.
Akindele Michael was a shy kid. Growing up in Nigeria he spent a lot of time indoors at his parents’ house. His parents, incidentally, are not shy. He believes that his sheltered upbringing is linked to his shyness – but is he right?
Partly, says Thalia Eley, professor of developmental behavioural genetics at Kings College London.
“We think of shyness as a temperamental trait and temperament is like a precursor to personality,” she says. “When very young children are starting to engage with other people you see variation in how comfortable [they] are in speaking to an adult that they don’t know.”
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She says that only about 30% of shyness as a trait is down to genetics and the rest comes about as a response to the environment.
Most of what we know about the genetics of shyness comes from studies that compare shyness in identical twins – who are perfect genetic copies of each other – with non-identical twins, who only share about half of the same genes.
As much as 70% of shyness traits are not genetic, but instead a reaction to our environment (Credit: Getty Images)
In the last decade or so, scientists like Eley have started to look at DNA itself to try and find genetic variants that might have an effect on personality and mental health.
Each individual genetic variant only has a tiny effect, but when you look at thousands in combination, the impact starts to be more noticeable. Even then, the influence of genes on shyness can’t be taken in isolation.
“There won't be one, ten or even a hundred genes involved, there’ll be thousands of genes,” Eley says. “So if you think of the entire genome for both parents [of a child] there are hundreds of thousands of relevant genetic variants.”
A shy child may be more likely to isolate themselves in a playground and watch everybody else rather than engaging
So the environment is almost more important for developing these sorts of traits, she says. And one of the interesting things about genetics is that it drives us to extract aspects of the environment that match our actual predispositions.
For example, a shy child may be more likely to isolate themselves in a playground and watch everybody else rather than engaging. That then makes them feel more comfortable being on their own because that becomes their common experience.
“It’s not that it’s one or the other; it’s both [genes and environment] and they work together,” says Eley. “It's a dynamic system. And because of that, you can always change it through psychological therapies that can teach you techniques to cope.”
A shy child may be more likely to isolate themselves in a playground - and feel more comfortable being on their own (Credit: Getty Images)
Is shyness necessarily a bad thing?
Chloe Foster, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma in London, says shyness in itself is quite common and normal and doesn’t cause problems unless it develops into more of a social anxiety.
Foster says the people she treats seek help because “they are starting to avoid a lot of things that they need to be doing”. It might be not being able to talk to people at work, difficulties socialising or being in a situation where they feel they're going to be judged or evaluated by other people.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most effective psychological therapy for people who have shyness and social anxiety
Eley says that there may be evolutionary reasons for people to develop shy personality traits.
“It was useful to have people in your group who were off out there exploring and engaging in new groups but it was also useful for people who were more risk averse, [were] more aware of threat and would do a better job protecting young offspring, for example.”
She says that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most effective psychological therapy for people who have shyness and social anxiety. This evidence-based therapy works by trying to change your thought and behaviour patterns.
Focusing on the people in the room rather than whether you're speaking correctly can help calm public speaking nerves, experts say (Credit: Getty Images)
CBT helps you to identify these sorts of negative thoughts as well as realising that certain behaviours we think help us, such as rehearsing what you’re going to say in advance or avoiding eye contact, might actually be making us feel more socially anxious.
“It's often that little critical bully that will pop into your mind before, during and even after a social event,” Foster says.
Sometimes the problem is that people who struggle with something like public speaking due to shyness often set themselves very high standards for how they should perform in such a situation, she explains.
“They may think they shouldn't stumble their words… or they should be very, very interesting and that everybody should be totally rivetted in what they're saying the whole time.”
The more you can involve yourself with social situations, the more confident you’re going to become – Chloe Foster
If they are able to relieve some of the pressure on themselves, allowing themselves short pauses to take a breath might help alleviate some of that anxiety.
Another thing that could help is to try to focus externally on what’s happening around you, rather than internally on how anxiety makes you feel physically. Focusing on the audience rather than yourself can help you be less caught up in whether you stumble over your words.
She also suggests challenging yourself by being more open to new situations. “The more you can involve yourself with social situations, the more confident you’re going to become,” she says. “But remember to approach the social situations in a new way.”
This means changing your script. Ask yourself what you fear most about social situations. Are you worried about appearing boring? Or running out of things to say? The more you know about your anxiety, the more you can start to challenge it.
Jessie Sun, a PhD student at the University of California Davis who researches the psychology of personality, stresses that shyness and introversion are not the same thing.
Western culture puts great emphasis on making eye contact - but not every other culture is as comfortable with this (Credit: Getty Images)
She explains that people often think that introversion is about being introspective or having an interest in exploring thoughts, but to psychologists that’s part of a different dimension of personality referred to as openness to experience.
Shy people are often introverted, but they might also be extroverts whose anxiety gets in the way of being sociable. And non-shy introverts might be socially adept but just prefer their own company.
Sun says “personality is consistently one of the strongest predictors of happiness and extroversion has especially strong relationships with wellbeing”.
“People who are extroverted tend to experience more feelings of excitement, enthusiasm and joy, whereas people who are introverted tend to experience those feelings less often,” she says.
They found that for people who were pretty extroverted anyway, acting consistently extroverted over a week meant they experienced more positive emotions
But could introverts get in on some of that joy and enthusiasm – by just acting extroverted?
Sun and her colleagues did an experiment. They asked people to act extroverted for an entire week – which is a long time for someone who is shy. “We asked them to act bold, talkative, outgoing, active and assertive as much as possible,” she says.
They found that for people who were pretty extroverted anyway, acting consistently extroverted over a week meant they experienced more positive emotions and they felt more “authentic” – more like themselves.
But the people who were more introverted didn't experience as much of that boost in positive emotion. And the people who were extreme introverts actually felt more tired and experienced more negative emotion.
Extroverts tend to have better feelings of wellbeing, but asking introverts to try and "fake" an extroverted attitude can leave them feeling drained (Credit: Getty Images)
“I think the main lesson,” says Sun, “is that it's probably too much to ask introverted or very shy people to act extroverted as much as they can for an entire week [but they] might consider acting extroverted on fewer occasions.”
We’ve seen how our environment plays a big part in whether we are shy or not – but could culture also affect how happy you are if you are a natural introvert?
The United States is said to value confident, extroverted behaviour over introversion, whereas studies have found that in parts of Asia, including Japan and China, being quiet and reserved is more desirable.
Attitudes towards eye contact also varies hugely from country to country. Kris Rugsaken, a retired professor of Asian studies at Ball State University, says “while good eye contact is praised and expected in the West, it is seen as a sign of disrespect and challenge in other cultures, including Asian and African.
Extroverts tend to be happier even in the countries where introversion is more respected
“The less eye contact these groups have with an individual, the more respect they show.”
Despite these cultural differences, Sun says the research seems to show that extroverts tend to be happier even in the countries where introversion is more respected but the degree of happiness is less marked in those countries.
So while research suggests that extroverts end up being happier wherever they may be in the world, being introverted isn’t necessarily negative – any more than being outgoing is always positive.
“Don’t think of introversion as something to be cured”, Susan Cain writes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. “There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
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