As early as four months of age, some babies show strong
responses to novel stimuli, explains Pérez-Edgar. While most
babies might stare at a new mobile or coo in response to a new
musical toy, a handful react with signs of distress, arching their
backs and crying. Those babies are more likely to become the
shy kids in the classroom. “Over time the sensitivity to novelty
gets channeled into a sensitivity to social novelty,” she says.
That sensitivity isn’t a bad thing. Experts who study shyness
stress there’s nothing inherently problematic about being
reserved in social situations. Human society benefits from
having members all along the exuberance spectrum, says
Coplan. “It’s good to have some people who are more cautious,
more attuned to threats in the environment,” he says.
Being slow to warm up may also be a social benefit, at
least in some ways. Shyness may help grease the wheels of our
interactions with others. Research dating back decades has
documented that behaviors associated with shyness — such as
an averted gaze or that classic coy smile — tend to be perceived
positively by others.
Yet shyness can have downsides. Unsurprisingly, shy kids
tend to spend less time playing with other children, notes
Coplan. And peer relations are important for developing social
and communicative skills. “Kids learn things from peers in a
way they don’t learn from anyone else,” he says. “If they’re not
joining in, they could miss out on some of that good stuff.”
Shy kids may also be more prone to negative experiences
when they do hang out with other kids. They may be
misunderstood by peers who interpret their shyness as being
unfriendly, for instance. “Sometimes they get rejected by other
children, and they can be easy targets for bullying,” says Coplan.
But anxiety may be the biggest risk for bashful children.
While most shy kids become well-adjusted adults, as many as 30
percent to 40 percent of very shy children develop social anxiety,
says Pérez-Edgar — a risk four times higher than average.
High anxiety can put them at risk for other problems,
including depression and substance abuse. The latter might
seem counterintuitive, since quiet, timid kids aren’t exactly
thought of as thrill-seekers. But anxious adolescents may turn
to drugs and alcohol as social lubricants, says Pérez-Edgar. “One
of the ways they’re coping is through drug use, and especially
Fortunately, most kids learn healthier ways to manage their
shyness over time, says Henderson. “We rarely see an inhibited
toddler become the most exuberant adult,” she says. “But many
don’t stay highly shy. They still have those reactions, but with
time and experience they learn to regulate them.”
In fact, some children appear to begin regulating their
shyness even before they’re out of diapers. In a recent study,
Cristina Colonnesi, PhD, a psychologist at the University of
Amsterdam, and colleagues asked 2-year-olds to perform
animal sounds in front of strangers. They rated the children’s
expressions of shyness during the performances as either
positive (smiling while nervously touching their face or
A culture in flux
When Heather Henderson, PhD, a psychologist at
the University of Waterloo, lectures to students
about her shyness research, she often shows
videos of young kids playing. The response is
predictable. “People laugh and smile at outgoing
kids, and they become uncomfortable watching
shy kids,” she says.
Were she to show that same video in rural
China, she might get a very different response.
In any culture, there’s a range of temperaments
from very reserved to more outgoing. But culture
strongly affects how those temperamental
differences are judged.
In the 1990s, Xinyin Chen, PhD, a psychologist
at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that
while shy behaviors were linked to problems such
as anxiety in North America, they were associated
with positive school adjustment outcomes in
China. Behaviorally inhibited students in China
were held up as leaders in the classroom and
rated as more likable by peers, says Robert J.
Coplan, PhD, a psychologist at Carleton University
in Ottawa who has collaborated on cross-cultural
studies with Chen and colleagues in China.
But China has changed dramatically since
the 1990s, with rapid modernization and strong
influences from the West. Correspondingly, in
large urban areas, shyness is starting to be seen
as a detriment. “The same behavior, in a very
short period of time, seems to have done an
about-face in terms of its perceived adaptiveness
in Chinese culture,” Coplan says.
While social inhibition is still praised in
many rural areas, he says, “assertiveness and
independence have now become more positively
valued in the big urban centers.” The rapid
turnabout could have major implications for
Chinese society. Whereas an older teacher might
admonish an outgoing child, the younger teacher
down the hall might offer praise. Children born
in cities versus rural villages may receive very
different messages about how to behave.
For psychologists interested in the influence
of culture on behavior, the change is astounding.
Little more than a decade ago, Chinese teachers
wished more children would act more reserved,
Coplan says. And now? “On my latest visit,
they were talking about setting up intervention
programs to help young shy children.”
— KIRSTEN WEIR