From cowboys to coyboys

July 18, 1997

More than half of all Americans claim to be suffering from a serious social disease - shyness. Hard to believe, but Philip Zimbardo, a leading shyness researcher, blames the communications age and other insidious forces for making America bashful. Tim Cornwell reports

Feeling a little shy? Cat got your tongue, lost for words? If you encountered Philip Zimbardo at a party, you would probably be grateful to him for breaking the ice. Zimbardo describes himself as a "Zorba the Greek"-type personality, the first-born of a large Sicilian family, the type who jumps feet first into a conversation. He might ask you if you are shy, but purely as a professional matter. He has made his name in shyness, given dozens of interviews on the subject. But he is adamantly not shy himself.

In the early 1970s, Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, sparked a whole new round of research into shyness, in part with an Psychology Today article on its prevalence. He is the father of the field, author of books on the subject, "the one who got the ball rolling", a colleague says. He comes to the first International Conference on Shyness and Self-Confidence at the University of Wales, Cardiff, this week as its keynote speaker, with the message that new research says Americans are shy, and getting shyer.

Shyness, says Zimbardo, is a fundamental feature of the human condition. Since earliest times humans have needed to meet and mate; they want intimacy, but fear rejection. All of us are shy at times, displaying a deep-rooted evolutionary caution in the face of the new or unfamiliar. Some people, it appears, are genetically predisposed to shyness; it takes less to trigger an alert reaction in them that is watchful and silent.

Shyness at the extreme begins to blend with paranoia, driving the individual to phobic avoidance of people, Zimbardo says. Shy and painfully shy are descriptions that crop up repeatedly in the life of Ted Kaczynski, the brilliant mathematician turned Montana hermit, and now on trial as the alleged Unabomber. A Stanford study of ten murderers with no criminal record profiled eight of them as shy people unable to speak for themselves, whose rage and resentment, unexpressed, was internalised until they snapped.

The notion that Americans are shy may come as a surprise to Europeans, who usually complain that they are loud and rather familiar. But in the 1970s about 40 per cent of Americans reported being shy. The figure held fairly steady until about ten years ago, when it apparently began to rise. The latest statistics show that more than half profess a shy disposition.

For Zimbardo, the figures are a symptom of a serious social disease. Shy people fare badly in tests that require oral skills, whether for the police or medical schools. Gifts and talents are wasted except by those, such as writers or painters, who can pursue lonely professions. Shy students avoid open discussion with professors. Business surveys show that the highest earners are those with most "verbal fluence" - the more you talk, the more you earn.

There are hopes that some shy people have managed to drop their inhibitions in cyberspace, learning an ease of social communication in the faceless on-line world. Zimbardo's take is quite different: the communications age, he says, is breaking casual human connections, and is partly to blame for the rise in shyness statistics. "Society is dumping thousands more every day," he says. "Creating shy people, or converting the not shy to the shy."

Bank machines, automated telephone reception systems, even self-service petrol stations allow shy people to remain in their own cocoon, he says. There is no greeting, no thanking, the most basic human exchange. Email and the Internet, meanwhile, give the illusion of social intercourse, when they are just a means of exchanging information. They substitute electronic reality for real feelings, concerns, anxieties.

In a computer message, you are in control, nobody interrupts, you do not have to fight for the floor or monitor who is paying attention. "When I go to Stanford, I can be there eight hours and talk to ten faculty members and never see one," says Zimbardo. "When I go into their offices, I feel I have to have an agenda, something so important I can't send them a message."

Crime, meanwhile, has helped to shut down simple communal activity, such as playing in the street, he believes. The corporate culture that stresses efficiency and frowns on "time-wasting" - often simple chatting - increasingly infects our home life. People repeatedly tell researchers that they are busier than ever before. Then there are smaller extended families, where children live further away from their parents, among neighbourhoods of strangers. And video games that keep a child engaged but alone.

His research, he says, is an alert to "something which is not good, it is happening right now all around us and we all contribute to it", to the "insidious forces" wearing down society. It is a theme explored in other contemporary American writings on the breakdown in community.

Much psychological research is autobiographical, Zimbardo says, but he has never felt the urge to study shyness in himself: "I'm one of the few people distinctly not shy." But his attention was drawn to it in 1971, with a previous study called the Stanford Prison Experiment, where student volunteers were enlisted to act as prisoners or guards in a simulated prison. The experiment got out of hand and had to be abandoned after six days; students chosen because they were healthy were suffering breakdowns, while others picked as pacifists acted sadistically as guards.

But he began thinking of the shy person as someone who incarcerates himself in a silent prison, a person who is his own guard and prisoner. A shy person feels fears, anxieties and dangers when they are not objectively there, Zimbardo says. They imagine everyone will reject them, so they do not give others the chance to evaluate them. They become isolated in their own head.

Until he popularised the field, much of the contemporary research dealt with children and adolescents, the assumption being that adults outgrew shyness. But Zimbardo carried out adult surveys, asking people if they considered themselves shy, and whether shyness was part of their personality. Typically about 40 per cent said yes. He opened the Stanford Shyness Clinic, the first of its kind. He discovered Asian Americans were more shy, and Jewish Americans less so.

When his research broadened overseas, he found that in Japan the figure went as high as 60 per cent, while in Israel it was down to about 30 per cent. In 1985, he stopped his research into shyness but was drawn back into it by new evidence that it has been increasing by about 1 per cent a year.

In the social context, shyness can make people easier to manage. They are the children who do not speak except when spoken to, the employees who do what they are told, and do not ask for a raise in salary. But almost always, they see the trait in themselves as undesirable.

In his book, Shyness, What it is, What to do About it, Zimbardo offers four solutions to shyness. For physiological shyness - heart pounding, sweaty palms, tremors - try meditation, relaxation or, in extreme cases, get a prescription for beta-blockers, used by actors for stage fright. Learn to master a social situation, in content, timing and style - people meeting new people almost always warm to the ice-breaker. Practise being a social animal, even if it is merely calling a phone number for information or starting a conversation in the supermarket queue. Finally, there is "cognitive restructuring", developing a positive attitude about yourself. "People say things about themselves they wouldn't say about Hitler," he advises. "Put the blame on the situation, rather than yourself."


Some shy people use extreme, even bizarre behaviour to compensate for their shyness. One woman got her body pierced, because she felt that if she looked strange "people would focus on what she looked like and not on her as a person", says Bernardo Carducci.

Carducci's research team, at the Indiana University Southeast Shyness Research Institute, asked a sample of shy people what they did to overcome shyness. He found that some force themselves to socialise, with mixed success, while others use drugs or alcohol as "social lubricants". Yet others try physical exercise or losing weight.

"Everybody wants to be more outgoing," says Carducci. "We are a culture of people who value extroversion." He cites singer Madonna and radio "shock-jock" Howard Stern: "The louder you are, the more of a hero you seem in this society."

Extroversion for the shy, however, can be counterproductive; when people force themselves to parties and feel they have failed to socialise, their sense of being unworthy can worsen. Then they are liable to return home to the TV and "comfort food" like ice cream. They would be better off trying self-help first, Carducci says.

He offers a few tips. One is to be socially prepared, planning not just what to wear but what to say and do. Before going out, he urges, read the newspaper or research what is on the menu. Have some jokes ready. Carducci also carries a cigarette lighter as a route to quick introductions. Another answer is to find somebody who is more shy than you are. It helps them with their shyness and yours.


About 15 per cent of children qualify as shy or inhibited, according to researchers at the University of Guelph, Ontario. A larger number of adults report shyness, but as adults we are more likely to compare ourselves unfavourably with others, says Mary Ann Evans, in the university's department of psychology.

Their studies suggest that a number of children are biologically predisposed to shyness from immediately after birth. About 40 per cent of parents of shy children report one classic display of stranger wariness: when an unfamiliar person appears, the shy child will not speak or look at them, and will even hide behind its mother's skirts.

There are other symptoms associated with shyness, where children struggle to deal with the strange or new. Shy children tend to be restless sleepers and picky eaters. They like to play with less boisterous children, and complain that intrusive noise "hurts their ears". Some are so wary of change that parents report putting new clothes on display before asking them to try them on. Another characteristic is an unwillingness to be cared for by a father, at bed or bathtime. Overall, these children are more likely to become upset or cry. Most parents felt empathy for the shy child, sometimes describing them as "astute observers", but also expressed disappointment.

This research was presented this week at the world's first International Conference on Shyness and Self-Confidence held at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments