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Introversion vs. Shyness: The Discussion Continues

Teasing apart the difference between shyness and introversion.

Are introversion and shyness the same thing? When I interviewed Wellesley College psychologist Jonathan Cheek, he said it depends on who you ask. So I next asked Louis A. Schmidt, director of the Child Emotion Laboratory at McMaster University, who studies the biological underpinnings of personality, especially shyness.

"Though in popular media they're often viewed as the same, we know in the scientific community that, conceptually or empirically, they're unrelated," Schmidt says.

The two get confused because they both are related to socializing-but lack of interest in socializing is very clearly not the same as fearing it. Schmidt and Arnold H. Buss of the University of Texas wrote a chapter titled "Understanding Shyness" for the upcoming book The Development of Shyness and Social Withdrawal. There they write, "Sociability refers to the motive, strong or weak, of wanting to be with others, whereas shyness refers to behavior when with others, inhibited or uninhibited, as well as feelings of tension and discomfort." This differentiation between motivation and behavior is consistent with the ability many of us have to behave like extroverts when we choose, whereas shy people cannot turn their shyness off and on.

In addition, when Cheek and Buss administered a questionnaire measuring shyness vs. low sociability to 947 college students, they found a very low correlation between shyness and low sociability--just because you're shy doesn't mean you don't want to be around people, and vice versa. (Subsequent measures, with additional items on the shyness scale, showed higher correlations, but the two were still very clearly different.)

In teasing apart various aspects of sociability and shyness, Schmidt and Buss describe introverts as "low on social approach and low on social avoidance." So although we don't pursue interaction, we're not afraid of it, either. Like we've been saying.

And, says Schmidt, "When we look at the interaction between shyness and introversion and treat those as two unrelated dimensions, it's as though each independent measure is adding unique variants to behavior." So someone who is introverted and shy will behave differently from someone who is introverted and not shy, who will behave differently from someone who is extroverted and shy, who will behave differently from someone who is extroverted and not shy. These distinctions help explain the range of behaviors and emotions people describe in the comments on this blog-some people sound bold, some timid, some are comfortable with their attitudes towards socializing, some long to be different.

Schmidt studies children from birth to age 12 and says that there are biological components to both shyness and levels of sociability, although shy children don't always stay shy. "There is a degree of malleability, although there are limits to it," he says. "We find that more shy children tend to grow out of their shyness than sociable children tending to become shy." He says introversion has not been studied in detail yet but says, "If I were to speculate, I think you'd see less change in introvert personality style."

So, I am convinced. My introversion is not shyness, although I do sometimes feel shy. (I'm not sure yet under what circumstances I become bashful-more to think about.) And I speculate that people who claim to have conquered introversion may instead have conquered shyness without actually becoming extroverts--if they were, in fact, introverts to begin with. Maybe they were just shy.


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Copyright 2009 Sophia Dembling

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