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Shyness: Causes, Impact and Treatment Back to Course Index


Johnny knew he was the best speller in the class.  He always sat at his desk and spelled the words correctly in his head much faster than the classmates that were lined up in front of the room.  Johnny always made sure he was one of the first to get a word wrong, though, just to end the torture of standing up in front of everyone, with everyone staring at him when it was his turn.

Some kids find great joy in standing in front of the class to show their rock collection to the class. But for a shy child show-and-tell might be their worst nightmare.  

An understanding of shyness and its social and psychological impact is necessary in order to assist clinicians in providing better treatment. Knowledge of the biological, psychological, and social aspects of shyness can help expand treatment intentions for clinicians. Because shyness can negatively impact the quality of one’s life, it should be addressed appropriately and fully.

This course will explore how we define shyness from the feeling, as well as behavioral aspects. We will look at the various theories for causation and treatment. We will also look at how shyness is influenced by gender and age.



Shyness, also called diffidence, is the feeling of apprehension, lack of comfort, or awkwardness, especially when a person is around other people. This commonly occurs in new situations or with unfamiliar people. Shyness can be a characteristic of people who have low self-esteem but not necessarily.  The American Psychological Association defines shyness as the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people. Some people’s shyness is so intense that it can keep them from interacting with others even when they want or need to, which can lead to problems in relationships and at work.

On a broader level, shyness includes an affective, cognitive, and behavioral component. The affective component reflects the psycho-physiological reactions experienced by shy people, such as anxiety, muscle tension, increased heart rate, and upset stomach. The cognitive component reflects excessive self-consciousness, negative self-appraisals, and irrational belief systems (thoughts rating from “Everyone is staring at me” to “Nobody will find me interesting”). Lastly, the behavioral component is expressed by behavioral inhibition and social avoidance, such as not speaking to others and avoiding eye contact.

Shyness vs. introversion

Shyness and introversion appear similar in their overt expression. For example, both shy and introverted people tend to avoid social interactions at a party. However, being shy and being introverted are two distinct constructs. 

Introverts do not fear social interactions. They simply prefer more sedate, solitary activities, and often avoid social interaction as an expression of that preference. Shy individuals often desire social contact but are inhibited by their excessive self-consciousness, negative self-evaluation, and perceived lack of social skills.

Shyness vs. social anxiety

Social anxiety disorder involves the experience of anxiety and self-critical evaluation in social settings response to the fear of evaluation by others of one’s public performance. It has a greater disruptive influence on one’s social behavior than the experience of shyness. For example, those with an extreme social anxiety disorder may experience difficulty signing a check, talking on the telephone, or using a public restroom, in addition to the avoidance of everyday situations such as eating in public.

Past research has acknowledged the complexity of thoroughly investigating shyness due to different operational definitions. While research has focused on aspects of shyness, the literature appeared to lack a general consensus. For instance, Dr. Rickman and Dr. Davidson defined shyness as a combination of genetics, socialization, and modeling by an adult caregiver, in their book Personality and Behavior in Parents of Temperamentally Inhibited and Uninhibited Children.  However, Dr. Bruch and Dr. Pearl, on the other hand, emphasized a particular attributional style that encompassed locus of control, stability, and controllability in their publication Attributional Style and Symptoms of Shyness in a Heterosocial Interaction. Since then, definitions have primarily focused on baseline physiological differences between shy and non-shy individuals.


The terms below are used in the theoretical approaches to the cause of shyness.

Attributional style: Attribution style is part of a motivational theory. Attribution is comprised of three factors, each falling within a continuum: locus of control, stability, and controllability.

Contextual theory: A theory of personality that states that a personality can evolve through circumstance. According to the contextual model, personality is subject to change based upon both critical life periods and the gender of the individual.

Cumulative continuity: An interaction of factors and/or affective states that results in ongoing shy behavior.

Cynical shyness: A type of shyness, more common in men, whereby there is a strong desire for social involvement despite a lack of social skills, causing repeated rejection by peers. This resulting and unexpressed emotional pain increases to the point of intense anger and hatred.

Eight stages of psychosocial development: A developmental theory that states that personality is developed throughout life in eight stages.

Implicit theory of shyness: A theory of shyness with two components (entity and incremental) that helps explain how some people can or cannot minimize shyness.

Neuroticism: One of the “Big Five” factor personality traits associated with shyness. It is linked to feelings of anxiousness and apprehension.

Plaster hypothesis: A concept within the “Big Five” personality factors that states personality is based upon biology and remains relatively stable throughout life.

Primary attachment: Occurs during the first stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development [20]. Primary attachment begins at birth when infants rely upon their mothers to provide comfort. With successful primary attachment, the child later adaptively adjusts to the environment.

Attachment-related beliefs appear to have a strong moderating effect on the relationship between shyness and emotional wellbeing. According to attachment theory, there are four main styles of attachment in adults:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-preoccupied
  • Dismissive-avoidant
  • Fearful-avoidant

People develop secure attachment styles through a history of good relationships with responsive partners. Other attachment styles develop due to problems forming strong relationships with others, whether through anxiety or problematic relationships in the past. These different attachment styles are linked to core beliefs about dating and relationships and can determine how likely people are to form strong emotional attachments to others. Shy people who are otherwise secure in their confidence to form strong relationships are more likely to avoid emotional problems linked to isolation or poor self-esteem. For people who avoid relationships due to anxiety about being accepted or feelings of inadequacy, the long-term outcome can be much poorer.  

The tendency for social avoidance and affective states, such as anxiousness, have been studied in parental attachment theories and shyness, both indicators of early emotional adjustment and later social competency. According to attachment theory, parents have influence over a child’s personality development—a secure bond results in a secure child who feels comfortable to explore the environment. The secure bond further allows the child to become accustomed to and later involved in interpersonal relationships. Overall, the literature was consistent in the finding that meeting a child’s early emotional needs had long-lasting, positive social effects. 

It has also been found that marital conflict, which plays a role in attachment, negatively correlated with sensitive interactions and positively correlated with maternal parenting attitudes. 

For instance, research that focused on parental attachment, gender differences, and the influence of race in a sample of college students has highlighted the correlation to shyness. Assessments were utilized to rate the participants’ perceived parental bond, social competencies, and overall emotional wellbeing. With the application of each measure, the authors hoped to expand upon attachment theory literature and measure the social competencies of both African American and white adolescents.

The results of this study showed that the African American and white samples held similar views of parental attachment. Specifically, the authors correlated that if attachment bonds were strong, the social competencies of the participants were strong, regardless of race. In both groups, overall perceived parental relationships were stronger for fathers, although this finding was stronger in the African American sample. This paternal finding contradicted past research that cited a greater maternal influence in the attachment. 

Based on these and other published research, shyness appears to at least partially originate from the quality of the early attachment between child and caregiver. This cross-cultural phenomenon has been noted in both overall theory and empirically-based studies. The unfortunate outcome of insecurely attached children is lifelong social anxieties.

According to the self-presentation theory of shyness, concerns about disapproval and perceived deficits in interpersonal skills, along with reduced self-esteem, are critical factors associated with shyness. Adding the cultural component to the self-presentation theory of shyness suggests that those personality factors associated with shyness, such as lower self-perceived interpersonal competencies and expectations of rejection, would be experienced to a greater degree in Asian cultures. This is due to the tendency of Asian cultures to be more collectivist and place greater restraints on individual expression than Western cultures.

Consistent with the cultural-based self-presentation theory of shyness, cultural differences in the intensity of the experience of these two critical factors associated with shyness indicate that Asian individuals tend to be more sensitive to rejection and more self-critical than American individuals.



From birth, parents have a tremendous impact on their children’s long-term social wellbeing and self-confidence. It is the consistency of caregiving, coupled with an appropriate balance of encouragement and boundaries, that aids in satisfactory social interactions, self-confidence, and appropriate emotional reactivity later in life.

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development 

Erikson established a theory of the eight stages of psychosocial development that occur throughout life. The importance of the initial four stages in building a foundation for positive social interaction is twofold. Firstly, the parent is primary in guiding the child through these stages, each of which influences how offspring later view social relationships. Secondly, confidence is the direct result of parental support when children begin to explore their environment.

The first stage of psychosocial development, trust vs. mistrust, begins at birth when infants rely upon their caregiver to provide comfort. If comfort is provided, infants develop a sense of trust, which is both a first social milestone and emerging confidence. Specifically, children develop confidence when the caregiver’s routine and schedule is reliable. With successful primary attachment, the child later adaptively adjusts to the environment. If trust or confidence does not develop, negative consequences emerge in the psychological wellbeing of the child. The compromised psychological wellbeing can then manifest into adulthood in the form of social issues and/or depression, coupled with blaming personal shortcomings on others.

According to Erikson, after children exit the trust vs. mistrust stage, they enter a second: autonomy vs. shame and doubt. This stage is characterized by a significant gain in motor skills, which provides the child with an opportunity to physically explore the environment. The resolution of this stage is dependent upon the degree of encouraging self-expression by the parent. The ultimate outcome is the child developing the capacity of either holding on or letting go. To develop the latter, a child must be permitted to explore the environment while the parent helps appropriately ensure safety. An appropriate balance of exploration and caution further solidifies proper attachment as the child understands the supported quest for autonomy. A sense of pride develops if autonomy occurs, while shame and doubt will result in uncertainty and the preference to be unnoticed.

The next stage is initiative vs. guilt. Initiative is a natural progression from autonomy, as the child feels a sense of pride and develops the confidence to engage in goal-seeking behaviors. At this stage, the child begins to separate from the parent as he or she begins school. If he or she successfully resolves previous conflicts, primarily through parental encouragement and modeling, the ability to cooperate and learn from other adults develops. In addition, the child feels confident in his or her abilities to establish and reach goals.

When initiative vs. guilt is resolved, a child is well prepared to successfully address the next conflict, industry vs. inferiority. At this stage, many children, and emerging adolescents, start to disconnect from parental bonds, and their social life takes top priority. If all conflicts are successfully resolved, and the parent provides adequate modeling and encouragement, children should succeed socially. If not, children may lack the confidence to try new things or take social risks.

The earlier psychosocial stages, as theorized by Erikson, highlight the importance of successful resolution. For instance, if early conflicts are unresolved, shyness could result as a child learns to mistrust others, and initial social milestones are missed. If a sense of shame and doubt arises, the child will not develop confidence as a result of being discouraged from utilizing emerging motor skills as a vehicle for social contact. Furthermore, if guilt develops, the child does not develop self-confidence to separate from parents. However, Erikson’s model is based on children being raised in a two-parent household in which the mother is the primary caregiver. Variations in family structure may impact the successful resolution of the various stages.

The impact of an individual’s perceived relationship with the parent is crucial in the development of shyness; however, it has been under-addressed in research and clinical practice. It is generally the parent who provides both a social model and a source of social encouragement and discouragement. The results of research on the topic indicate that anxiety-related self-talk positively correlates with having negative perceptions of parenting by an adult child.

In shyness, parenting research has primarily centered on parenting styles. As noted, important factors that contribute to shyness include socialization and parental modeling. Examining the role of perceived parenting in shyness is important, as factors such as low familial warmth, utilizing criticism and shame for discipline, feeling a lack of parental support, and overly controlling parents have been noted to intensify shyness.

Research regarding perceived parenting and shyness has garnered inconsistent results across age groups and genders. In one study of 260 fifth and sixth-grade students, teachers completed measures of classroom behavior focused on internalized behavior, such as degree of self-criticism and negative self-talk, while the students completed measures regarding attitudes children had about their parents. The girl students perceived fathers as more accepting than mothers compared to the boys. Among both genders, higher scores on internalized behaviors were correlated with perceptions of mothers as less accepting and more controlling, perhaps because mothers played more of a disciplinarian role than fathers.

Parents who are authoritarian or overprotective can cause their children to be shy. Children who aren’t allowed to experience things may have trouble developing social skills.

A warm, caring approach to rearing children usually results in them being more comfortable around others.

Schools, neighborhoods, communities, and cultures all shape a child. Connections a child makes within these networks contribute to their development. Children with shy parents may emulate that behavior.

In adults, highly critical work environments and public humiliation can lead to shyness.

Self-criticism is a primary characteristic of shyness, and studies have investigated the relationship between negative self-talk and perceived parenting.  In one study, participants with higher levels of self-criticism perceived parents as rejecting and restrictive, especially the same-sex parent. For example, a female participant with higher levels of self-criticism perceived her mother as more rejecting. The same was concluded for the relationships between fathers and sons. Furthermore, girls self-criticized more than their male peers from early childhood through young adulthood. Although these findings may not be statistically significant, given the high rate of attrition (only 20% of participants completed the 25-year investigation), it does illuminate some possible gender differences in perceived parenting.

Aside from Erikson’s psychosocial stages, there are other factors that can either benefit or hinder the psychological growth of children. Although completed in the late 60s to early 70s, and attitudes about divorce have changed, it was shown that divorce negatively impacted the overall wellbeing of children, especially if the divorce occurred before the child was six years of age. Relationships between adolescents, young adults, and parents also suffered as a consequence of divorce. Adult offspring from divorced families had an increased likelihood of initiating psychological services, especially between 18 and 22 years of age. Finally, the study reported that young adults from divorced families reacted with greater intensity to emotional distress and were more likely to have quit high school.

Attributional style is the manner by which one explains life experiences and can lean toward optimism or pessimism. Attribution is comprised of three factors, each falling within a continuum: locus of control, stability, and controllability. The first, locus of control, is determined by the extent to which a person assigns cause to an event to internal (positive) or external (negative) factors. In other words, the cause is either attributed to the self or something in the environment. Stability is defined by whether the cause of an event is fixed (negative) or variable (positive); a person may believe the causal factor can change over time or that it is unchanging (e.g., luck or chance). The final factor is controllability or the extent to which a person believes that capability for change (either internally or externally) is achievable. Shyness is correlated with negative attribution styles, whereby the person perceives limited control. In shy individuals, causal attributions are perceived to be resistant to change, and as such, negative outcomes are expected.

In a study of shy college students who were compared to a matched sample of non-shy students, each participant was asked to complete a 10-item attributional measure that contained a situation with either a positive or negative outcome. Each item was related to one of three situations: performing a task, close interpersonal relationships, or initiating new relationships. Each item required that participants imagine that the particular situation was happening.

The researchers examined the extent to which each participant internalized the outcomes of a situation, how each generalized the causes to real-life situations, the likelihood of each situation actually happening, and the potential impact of the situation. The authors found shy participants were more likely to attribute the results of positive scenarios to circumstances in which they lacked personal control. For instance, friendships were established at the workplace because co-workers were friendly, not because the individual was like-able or made an effort to make friends.

In the negative scenarios, shy participants significantly ascribed imagined outcomes to their own stable behavioral patterns. In these situations (e.g., “You gave an important talk, and the audience reacted negatively”), the degree to which a shy participant placed blame on him/herself for negative situations was more significant than credit for the positive. The authors reasoned that shy persons tended to expect both negative consequences and undesirable outcomes, especially in unfamiliar situations. This was primarily due to negative self-talk. Consequently, shy participants had difficulty acknowledging success. These attributions further promoted socially inhibiting behaviors and increased the likelihood of depression and/or anxiousness.

Two shy people may respond differently to a given social situation, and it is believed that perceived control of this personality trait may be responsible.  In essence, a shy person may minimize his or her shyness based upon cognitive mediation, motivation, and self-awareness. This is based on the Implicit Self Theory.  This implicit theory of shyness is based on both entity theorists, who believe that personality is fixed, and incremental theorists, who believe that personality is subject to change. For example, a shy person would likely fail socially if he or she believed that shyness was unchangeable. Conversely, a person who felt that shyness was controllable could socially succeed.

Three related studies were conducted to examine differences in shy behaviors in individuals who were either entity or incrementally oriented. Each study was conducted in colleges, although the participants’ ages varied from late teens to early 40s. Each participant was subjected to a series of measures addressing beliefs about shyness and tendencies to avoid or approach social situations. In addition, the authors either videotaped an interaction and/or the individual believed that a videotaped interaction would occur. The results were varied, although some similarities between incremental and entity-oriented participants were noted.



Shyness has been identified in cultures around the world.  Cross-cultural comparisons of shyness tend to focus on differences between Western (i.e., USA) and Eastern (i.e., Asian) countries and report more shyness in Eastern cultures (approximately 60 percent) than in Western cultures (approximately 40 percent). A similar pattern emerged for other shyness-related constructs such as social anxiety, introversion, communication anxiety, and unassertiveness in cross-cultural studies between Eastern and Western samples. This East-West difference seems to persist for students of Asian heritage and European heritage following their migration to the West.

Culturally-based explanations of shyness tend to focus on the distinction between the characteristic societal features of and the interpersonal consequence of personal expression for individuals within collectivistic and individualistic cultures. Collectivist cultures tend to promote the esteem of the group over that of the individual, which tends to foster greater emotional control and inhibition of personal expression. Individualistic cultures tend to promote the esteem of the individual, which tends to foster greater self-expression and less concern about public scrutiny of one’s self.

Consistent with the cultural-based self-presentation theory of shyness, cultural differences in the intensity of the experience of these two critical factors associated with shyness indicate that Asian individuals tend to be more sensitive to rejection and more self-critical than American individuals.

Although shyness is not considered a psychiatric disorder, the experience of shyness can create sufficient affective discomfort and problems in the personal, social, and professional lives of shy individuals. These problems can include feelings of loneliness and anxiety, difficulties meeting new people and problems dating, and inhibited career progression. As a result, some shy individuals will seek professional assistance to deal more effectively with their shyness. Approaches to helping shy individuals deal more effectively with their shyness also tend to reflect a “cultural fit” that focuses on cross-cultural differences between Eastern and Western cultures.

In Eastern cultures, the emphasis on interdependency and social harmony raise concern regarding one’s self-image based on a concern for how one is evaluated by others. In Eastern cultures, Morita therapy has been proposed as a cultural fit for helping individuals deal with their shyness. This therapy, which is based on the Buddhist perspective, focuses on helping individuals to change their inner attitudes and behavioral expectations to foster greater adjustment and effectiveness without altering the symptoms. Morita therapy emphasizes that shy individuals be more accepting of the symptoms of their shyness and less critical of their actions. Such principles are quite consistent with addressing the lowered self-perceived interpersonal competencies and increased sense of rejection as critical factors identified by the self-presentation model of shyness and intensified within the Eastern cultural context.

In Western cultures, the emphasis on independence and self-expression through more direct communication and greater tolerance of self-promotion raise concerns for developing a more valued interpersonal style characterized by extroversion. In Western cultures, approaches addressing the affective and cognitive components of shyness while featuring the development and enhancement of communication and social skills have been proposed as a cultural fit for helping individuals deal with their shyness. Progressive relaxation and biofeedback techniques focus on the reduction of bodily arousal to minimize the impact of anxiety during the execution of social behaviors, and cognitive-modification techniques attempt to revise self-perceptions, alter attributions and adjust expectations for defining success in while performing social situations. Programs for promoting interpersonal exchanges focus on the acquisition and development of social skills such as strategies for approaching others, techniques for initiating and maintaining conversation, and procedures for entering ongoing conversations.

Structured clinical programs typically involve combining elements from all of the approaches, such as using a cognitive modification to identify what situations produce the most critical self-evaluations and structured role-playing exercises within the context of systematic desensitization to reduce anxiety while teaching appropriate behavioral responses and building self-confidence in those situations.



Beyond the theoretical approaches to the cause of shy behaviors, there are other factors to consider, as well.   Shyness is partly a result of the genes a person has inherited. It’s also influenced by behaviors they’ve learned, the ways people have reacted to their shyness, and the life experiences they’ve had.  Although it has been found that the environment is the most important factor, genetic variants 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.  Keep in mind, though, that these factors interplay.  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 through reward and consequence. It’s a dynamic system. And because of that, it can be changed through therapy.

In a physiological study of personality, researchers examined brain reactivity to emotional stimuli and its impact on personality. This study was based upon the “Big Five” factor personality traits, specifically extroversion and neuroticism. The study solely utilized women, as they were considered to be more emotionally reactive when compared to men. Each of the 14 adult participants was asked to scan a series of 20 positive and 20 negative pictures and rate each on a scale of 1 through 9 in terms of arousal and emotional impact while their brain activation patterns were monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging. The authors highlighted that while participants scanned identical pictures, the emotional experiences were individualized—the emotional intensity of the response as a result of brain reactivity.

The researchers concluded that specific areas of the brain were activated when participants were presented with either positive or negative stimuli.

Overall, stronger brain activation to positive images was positively correlated with extraversion and localized to cortical and subcortical areas of the brain and amygdala. The authors found that as neuroticism increased, extraversion decreased. In other words, two factors associated with shyness increased neuroticism, and decreased extroversion occurred as a result of brain reactivity to emotional stimuli. This neuroticism factor is considered especially important as it is linked to feelings of anxiousness and apprehension. As a personality trait, neuroticism has been described as feeling lonely, even while in the presence of others, and feeling worried and tense without an identifiable cause.

Other research has shown that those high in neuroticism may be more likely to react with fear, the emotion that maintains shyness. Cognitively, the specific fears or worries that reinforce shyness are related to how a shy person believes he or she is perceived by others. Neurologically, there appears to be higher brain reactivity in the left hemisphere of the temporal lobe in those who scored high in neuroticism measures when presented with pictures that evoked negative emotions.



Self-esteem is known to play a role in shyness and social anxiety.  While lowered self-esteem may put someone at risk of later social anxiety, having an anxiety disorder can also make you feel worse about yourself. In this way, these afflictions interact to continue a negative cycle.  Shyness has been tied to self-talk and the concern over others having a negative opinion.  Low self-esteem can create anxiety and loneliness, which only reinforces negative self-talk. 

Generally speaking, an individual’s actions follow their thoughts.  People with healthy self-esteem are able to accurately assess themselves, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and still believe that they are worthwhile people.

Research has shown that individuals who are socially anxious and/or shy are less likely to associate positive words with themselves.  Experiences that can lead to lowered self-esteem include the following events during childhood and later life:

  • Criticism from parents
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect or being ignored
  • Bullying or teasing
  • Ridicule by peers
  • Unrealistic expectations or impossibly high standards of others

On the other hand, people who grow up being heard, respected, loved, celebrated, and accepted are less likely to develop a poor self-image. Of course, many people with challenging upbringings can have good self-esteem, and even those with loving parents and good experiences with peers may develop self-esteem problems. This emphasizes that low self-esteem is not something that someone has to live with.  

To reduce shyness due to self-esteem issues, individuals can be taught to:

  • challenge their inner voice
  • be compassionate with themselves
  • stay in the present
  • forgive themselves
  • practice behaviors they want to repeat



Research consistently indicates that existing gender differences impact the degree of shyness. Gender-specific consequences have been noted as a result of these differences. The resulting behaviors range from delayed romantic involvement and physical aggression in boys and men to difficulty concentrating as a result of socially triggered anxiety in girls and women.

Research has indicated that shy boys are more prone to depression as they transition from the end of high school to the end of the first semester at college than girls. This is generally due to their difficulty adjusting to the demands of college and being more preoccupied with their parents compared to girls. Furthermore, as discussed, physiological differences have been identified between male and female preschoolers, specifically in brain reactivity to unpleasant emotions.

In another study, the authors asked that participants engage in an unstructured conversation, recorded on videotape, and then complete a self-report questionnaire. Participants viewed their own videotaped conversations and completed a thought-feeling measure about the conversation and the extent to which each participant enjoyed the interaction. Finally, independent evaluators examined the videotapes.

For both genders, shy individuals viewed thoughts and feelings concerning social skills more negatively than the non-shy controls. Specific negative social cues included a closed body posture and decreased amounts of eye contact compared to the non-shy sample. Women tended to assume more of a shy role in same-sex interactions com-pared to men, who likely felt more societal pressure with initial heterosocial interactions. The women’s shyness was related more to dynamic, nonverbal behaviors, such as the amount of eye contact, displaying a pleasant affect (e.g., smiling, laughing), and the amount of active listening.

As with women, male shyness was related to both verbal and nonverbal behaviors. This specifically included both eye contact and thoughts and feelings of how they were perceived by women. Secondly, the shyer a male participant, the less frequently he spoke, and the less amount of time he spent speaking. Shy men tend not to initiate and tended to discourage eye contact with their partners. While reviewing the thoughts and feelings of the shy man, it was found that he was overly concerned about his anxiety and stress while interacting with a partner. Consequently, he devoted less energy to the conversation, which induced anxiousness in his partner. When compared to the women in the study, men reported less positive self-talk.

Another study examined gender differences in shyness with 82 male and 82 female college students. Each student was required to complete several measures on shyness and desire for social ability. In addition, each completed measures on the believed ability to control temperament (e.g., concentration, focusing, inhibition), emotions, and interpersonal stressors. A designated peer was also required to assess the participant using similar measures. Shy participants, regardless of gender, exhibited lower levels of constructive coping techniques. This included taking additional actions to solve problems, planning, and seeing positives in a situation viewed as negative. Also, both genders displayed a greater degree of physiological reactions, negative cognitions, and levels of anxiety and personal distress. In addition, women had a strong correlation between attention shift-ing (characterized by multi-tasking and difficulty concentrating) and shyness. A negative correlation was found between the degree of shyness and acceptance coping, which was defined as the ability to accept present reality and trusting in a higher power. Through measures completed by friends, the researchers found that shyer men tended to conceal their emotions, and thus, they were more emotionally restrictive and likely to hide feelings if upset. Secondly, shy men were high in measures of inhibition control, which resulted in hindering emotional experiences. Behaviorally, inhibition control resulted in shy men being less likely to interrupt others while speaking. Consequently, shy men had difficulty contributing to a conversation.

Male shyness has been linked to consequences of varying severity, including difficulty initiating romantic relationships. It is important to acknowledge and study shyness in men despite a potential unwillingness due to the vulnerability of previously discouraged self-disclosure. More critically, research has indicated a type of cynical shyness in men. In cynical shyness, men displayed a strong desire for social involvement but lacked social skills and, consequently, were repeatedly rejected by peers. As rejection re-occurred, the unexpressed emotional pain intensified, resulting in anger and hatred. Men with cynical shyness who lacked coping skills and/or resilience have been found to be more likely to commit acts of violence.



In some cases, treatment of shy individuals will focus on the clinical manifestation, such as anxiety disorders or social phobia. However, individuals with lower levels of shyness for whom the condition is nonetheless negatively affecting their lives may also benefit from intervention.

Although social phobia is an impairing psychiatric disorder, beyond normal human shyness, the treatment approaches for shyness and social phobia are similar, but because there is a clear clinical picture of social phobia, more research has focused on this condition. The most common approaches include cognitive-behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization, and skills training, including assertiveness training and positive affirmations. The Stanford/Palo Alto Shyness Clinic has identified seven approaches to treating shyness, which may be applied to each individual in various combinations:

  • Social skills training
  • Simulated exposures to feared stimuli
  • Flooding (exposure to the feared stimulus until the elimination of reaction)
  • In-vivo exposures
  • Communication training
  • Assertiveness training
  • Thoughts/attributions/self-concept restructuring

In the past, the major focus of treatment for social phobia was on behavioral therapy, including desensitization. However, a cognitive-behavioral approach, including both group and individual therapy, with an emphasis on changing individuals’ negative cognitions, is used more commonly today, with research supporting the efficacy of this type of treatment plan. In some patients, the inclusion of pharmacotherapy, utilizing an anti-anxiety medication, may be indicated.

Cognitive Behavioral Changes or Goals might involve:

  • A way of acting: like smoking less or being more outgoing;
  • A way of feeling: like helping a person to be less scared, less depressed, or less anxious;
  • A way of thinking: like learning to problem-solve or get rid of self-defeating thoughts;
  • A way of dealing with physical or medical problems: like lessening back pain or helping a person stick to a doctor’s suggestions.

Behavior Therapists and Cognitive Behavior Therapists usually focus more on the current situation and its solution, rather than the past. They concentrate on a person’s views and beliefs about their life, not on personality traits. Behavior Therapists and Cognitive Behavior Therapists treat individuals, parents, children, couples, and families. Replacing ways of living that do not work well with ways of living that work, and giving people more control over their lives, are common goals of behavior and cognitive behavior therapy.

Overcoming extreme shyness can be essential for the development of healthy self-esteem and social development. 

Psychotherapy can help individuals cope with shyness. They can be taught social skills, how to be aware of their shyness, and ways to understand when their shyness is the result of irrational thinking.

Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can help children and adults cope with anxiety, which may underlie shyness. Group therapy can also be helpful and serves as an arena to practice skills.



Shyness can vary in strength. Many people feel mild feelings of discomfort that are easily overcome. Others feel an extreme fear of social situations, and this fear can be debilitating. Inhibition, withdrawal from social activities, anxiety, and depression can result from shyness.

Shyness encompasses a broad spectrum of behaviors. It’s normal for children to sometimes feel shy in new situations. Perceptions of shyness may also be cultural.

Some cultures, such as many of those in the United States, tend to regard it negatively. Others, such as some Asian cultures, tend to regard shyness more positively.

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