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Are We Born Shy?

Genetics, environment, and bashfulness.

Whether it's at a party or on a plane, when people find out that I study shyness, the first question they invariably ask me is: "Are we born shy?" The answer to that question is absolutely not! There is no way that we can be born shy.

The Role of Self: A Necessary Component

The principal reason you cannot be born shy is that shyness is characterized by three major features: excessive self-consciousness, excessive negative self-evaluation, and excessive negative self-preoccupation. All three characteristic features of shyness involve a sense of self. And the sense of self does not develop until approximately 18 months of age. Since individuals are not born with a sense of self, they cannot be born shy.

When making such a statement, the next question people typically ask me is, "How do we know that individuals are not born with a sense of self?" Such a question is not only of interest to shyness researchers, but has also attracted the attention of some of the world's greatest thinkers, including Charles Darwin. In the late 1870s, Darwin proposed that the origin of the self begins when a child is able to recognize himself or herself in the mirror.

Research indicates that the initial signs of a sense of self first seem to appear at about six months of age, emerging gradually and becoming more refined over a period of about a year or so (Damon & Hart, 1982; 1988; Lewis Sullivan, Stranger & Weiss, 1989). More specifically, when placed in front of a mirror, children at around six months of age will reach out and try to touch their image as if it were another child.

At this point, people ask something like, "How do we actually know that the child really recognizes itself in the mirror and is not just reaching out to touch someone else who is willing to do exactly as he or she does?" To answer this question, researchers dabbed some red rouge on the noses of children and then placed them in front of a mirror. At around 15 to 18 months of age, the children would touch their own nose, not the image of it in the mirror, when seeing the rouge on it (Gallup & Suarez, 1986). Thus, it seems that by 15 to 18 months of age, children have some sense of what their faces should look like and are curious about any variations of it.

The Role of Inhibited Temperament: All Shook Up!

While there is no evidence that we are born shy, there is evidence that approximately 15 to 20 percent of infants are born with what Dr. Jerome Kagan of Harvard University (Kagan, 1994) and his colleagues (Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988) refer to as an inhibited temperament. "Temperament" refers to certain biological characteristics that people are born with that serve to influence their behavior very early in life, such as during the first few months.

Inhibited temperament is characterized by excessive physiological and behavioral reactions to environmental stimulation. For example, infants born with an inhibited temperament will kick their legs and feet more, display a higher heart rate, and cry longer and louder when exposed to an unpleasant noise, such a balloon popping, than infants not born with an inhibited temperament. For example, inhibited children at two years of age might be more likely to hide behind their parent's legs when a stranger enters their play area and engage in more isolated play at seven years of age than uninhibited children. Thus, what can start happening is that such inhibited behavior begins to be labeled as "shyness" by parents, teachers, and acquaintances.

Biology Is Not Destiny

The expression of such an inhibited temperament early in life does not guarantee that such individuals will grow up to be shy adults. Even if it did, all it would mean is that such individuals would have to make decisions about how and where to socialize that would take into consideration their temperament (e.g., go to a poetry reading instead of a loud bar).

The notion that people are born shy is simply a belief about shyness, not a fact, about shyness. There are many things shy individuals can do to control their shyness instead of letting their shyness control them--biology is not destiny.

In future entries on this blog, I will discuss what shy individuals can do to take control of their shyness and be "successfully shy." But more on that later.

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