Unabashedly bashful: Researchers are discovering that some people are shy from birth while others just feel shy in certain circumstances.


February 27, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

In 1959, Carol Burnett took Broadway by storm in "Once Upon a Mattress," a musical based on the fable "Princess and the Pea."

Only this Princess Winifred was scrappy and athletic, swimming the moat to get at the prince. Staggering across the stage, grabbing men and tossing them willy-nilly, Ms. Burnett bellowed out this show-stopper:

"Someone's being bashful, that's no way to be, not with me. For I am just as quiet as you, and I can understand your point of view. 'cause I've always been" -- long pause here -- "SHHHHHHHHHHY! I confess that I'm SHHHHHHHHY!"

Today, with up to one in two Americans reporting they have a problem with shyness, one has to wonder whether the country is full of Princess Winifreds, braying mock laments, or in the throes of a crisis created by lifestyles and technologies that increasingly isolate us from one another.

Johnny Carson is famously shy, as is David Letterman. Barbra Streisand has spoken of her struggles with shyness -- in countless interviews with mass-circulation magazines. In fact, Ms. Burnett -- the comedian who became a star singing about shyness -- has said for years that she is, yes, shy.

Locally, the shy ranks include William Donald Schaefer and Mary Pat Clarke, although both had long and successful careers in politics. Being shy didn't keep Mr. Schaefer from donning an old-fashioned bathing suit and jumping into a tank at the National Aquarium.

It all seems so counter-intuitive, so baffling. How can public figures be shy? What is shyness?

Shyness, under the more general rubric of temperament, is a subject of intense scrutiny at universities, although communication and psychology professors use other words to describe it: inhibition, or social phobia.

Whatever one calls it, extreme shyness is a handicap, undermining one in school, work and relationships. It is not the same thing as being a loner, or introvert, who chooses a solitary life. By definition, a shy person longs to change -- with good reason.

"In our culture, it is one of the most damaging problems you can have," says Dr. James C. McCroskey, professor of communications at West Virginia University. "All our research indicates that."

Yet we are surprisingly eager to step up and claim for ourselves something that can ruin our lives. Unlike other undesirable traits -- obesity, obsequiousness, sloth -- shyness tends to be over-reported, according to some who study it.

Others insist that anyone who feels shy, is shy.

Some of the most important research in inhibited behavior is being done by Robert E. Adamec, a professor of psychology at Memorial University in Newfoundland. He has clearly identified that some of his subjects are born with aggressive tendencies, while others are naturally anxious and timid in a way that cannot be explained by social conditioning.

It is not known how many of the subjects consider themselves shy, as they are cats and notoriously tight-lipped about all their feelings, except, possibly, hunger.

After observing cats in several situations from kittenhood on -- interacting with rats, entering strange rooms, listening to another cat's howls -- Dr. Adamec was able to break his cats into four groups: super-aggressive felines, with virtually no fear; sociable cats who showed some intimidation when exposed to rats; cats who never attacked rats, although they were comfortable going after mice; and a group that was easily intimidated by virtually anything novel.

"The most severe guys were really, really inhibited," Dr. Adamec says. "They would not approach a rat. If stuck in a strange room, they would always go and hide. They were very, very intimidated by anything that was new."

About 14 percent of the cats he studied belonged to this group. That corresponds to studies of humans, which finds 10 percent to 20 percent predisposed to shyness at birth. These people will exhibit certain characteristics -- an aversion to novelty and stimulation -- as early as 4 months.

Studies of twins also point up a biological factor in shyness, with identical twins more likely to share the trait than fraternal ones.

Biology, however, is not destiny, as Jerome Kagen of Harvard University reports in his book "Galen's Prophecy," cited by several professors as a seminal work in the temperament field. Yes, he writes, it is possible to identify babies predisposed toward anxiety and fear. ("High reactives," in his words).

But experience also will play a role in how the child develops. While some of those identified as high reactives may grow out of their fearfulness, others will become fearful because of things that happen to them.

Why, then, is it important to identify shyness early? Says Steven Reznick, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, who also studies temperament and psychology: "If the child has this biological basis, they're not going to be the life of the party, but you can help them."

Not shy on stage

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