Invited Symposium: Development of Social Phobia


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Shyness and Self-consciousness in Middle Childhood

Contact Person: W. Ray Crozier (crozier@cardiff.ac.uk)


Self-consciousness is central to the experience of shyness. This claim is supported by research evidence going back to the original Stanford Shyness Survey, where 85 per cent of respondents referred to self-consciousness in shyness (Zimbardo et al., 1974). More recently, Creed and Funder (1998, p. 31) report that socially anxious individuals 'are all too self-consciously aware of their own lack of verbal fluency, social presence and ambition and it is this self-awareness that inevitably leads to a fear of negative interpersonal evaluation, a major factor in trait social anxiety'. This claim, however, has proved problematic for research into shyness.

First, it is not clear how the experience of self-consciousness is related to anxiety, whether these should be regarded as separate emotional states that may be elicited by social situations or whether, say, self-consciousness is itself an aspect of anxiety. In support of the latter position, it can be argued that self-consciousness is to social anxiety as worry is to test anxiety, that is, a preoccupation with the self which interferes with task performance. Worry is not a process that is distinct from the normal mechanisms of thought (Klinger, 1996) but is thought content which is triggered by cues of threat, which is characterized by negative affect and self-deprecatory thoughts, and which can interfere with task-relevant information processing. In parallel fashion, self-monitoring is involved in the routine management of social encounters, so there is nothing unusual in the self being the object of thoughts; as in the case of worry, self-consciousness is characterized by negative affect, self-deprecation, and cognitive interference.

However, theories of embarrassment and shame stress that what is distinctive about the state of self--consciousness is not that the self is the object of evaluation but that the perspective of another is taken upon the self (Crozier, 1998). The 'self-conscious emotions' (Tangney & Fischer, 1995) are characterized by a shift in perspective where the individual views his or her own behavior as if through the eyes of another. Indeed, the experience of shame does not require that an individual takes a negative view of his or her conduct or even believe that any particular person takes such a view; it may be sufficient for shame if the individual recognizes that such a view can be taken by another (Taylor, 1985). The relationships among shyness, embarrassment and shame require further investigation. In particular, the adoption of the position that a shift in perspective is a prerequisite for self-consciousness has implications for the development of shyness, and we focus on this question in this paper.

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Fearful and self-conscious shyness

The claim that self-consciousness is central to shyness has implications for its development. As we have suggested, self-consciousness involves taking the perspective of another on the self and it is argued that this requires a level of cognitive development that may not be attained until, say, the age of four to six years. For example, Asendorpf has argued that the self in early childhood is not sufficiently developed to support the kinds of thinking about the self or perspective-taking ability that is characteristic of self-consciousness:

Young children below the age of four years seem incapable of the complex cognitive processes for two different kinds of inhibitory processes involved in Schlenker & Leary's (1982) approach to self-presentational behavior.

The ability to take others' perspective and, more generally, to represent the relation between two people's views, emerges between the ages of 4-6 years ... and it is rather likely that looking at oneself from the perspective of others is an even more complex cognitive task that perhaps emerges even later (Asendorpf, 1989, p. 483).

Given that young infants behave in ways which resemble shyness or which are predictive of later shyness and that one would not want to rule out the experience of shyness among young children, the view that shyness requires competencies that are not attained until later on is problematic. This issue was, of course, addressed by Buss (1984). He proposed two distinct types, fearful shyness and self-conscious shyness, distinguishing between these in terms of both causes and reactions. Fearful shyness is elicited by novelty and intrusion into a social situation; self-conscious shyness is elicited by formal situations and breaches of privacy and is also awareness of being scrutinized and the belief that one is uniquely different. The predominant affective components of the two types are, obviously, fear and self-consciousness.

This theory also has a developmental component, offering an accommodation of the cognitive demands made by self-consciousness. Fearful shyness, according to Buss, emerges early in life and is associated with inhibition in new situations, including contact with strangers. This form does not require self-awareness of any degree of complexity but the later appearing self-conscious form is associated with heightened awareness of the self as a social object and the capacity to adopt another perspective toward the self.

This conceptualization of the dual nature of shyness has not attracted much empirical attention. It is a theory of the duality of both the causes and the reactions of shyness. An alternative position is argued by Asendorpf (1989) who proposes that shyness is triggered by two different kinds of social situations, those where the individual interacts with strangers and those which have the potential for evaluation of the individual by others. Two kinds of situations elicit shyness and, although there is a developmental trend involved, so that the underlying construct of inhibition can take different forms at different ages, there is no need to postulate two different kinds of reactions. The behaviors which characterize observed behavioral inhibition in childhood, e.g., latency to first spontaneous utterance, average length of periods of silence, the proportion of time remaining silent, average duration of gaze aversion during silence also characterize observed inhibition among adults (Asendorpf, 1993).

In order to examine people's perceptions of shyness from the perspective of Buss's theory we interviewed a sample of adults, median age 40 years, about the role, if any, that shyness had played in their adjustment, as mature students, to university life (Crozier, in press). Subsequent content analysis targeted all mentions of situations that elicited shyness and these were categorized in terms of the causes of fearful and self-conscious forms of shyness, following Buss's classification scheme. Eighty-eight situations could be classified as fearful and 48 as self-conscious. The single largest category related to meeting people for the first time or interacting with strangers; this accounted for more than one in four of all the shyness-eliciting situations. The next step was to search for all words and phrases describing reactions to these situations and to classify these into fearful and self-conscious categories, again relying upon Buss's scheme.

The aim of this analysis was to investigate whether the two kinds of situations elicit different patterns of responses. There were both similarities and differences in reported reactions to the two kinds of situations. The most conspicuous differences concerned inhibited behavior which accounted for a substantial proportion of responses to fearful shy situations but was scarcely represented in self-conscious situations. Another salient difference concerned blushing and feeling 'small', humiliated and embarrassed which, in line with Buss's predictions, were almost absent in fearful shy situations but were more prevalent in self-conscious shy situations. Nevertheless, considering the pattern of responses as a whole, there is no absolute separation of responses into two classes, and if the study supports in general the thesis that shyness is elicited by two kinds of situations, it also implies that it is expressed in a range of responses which shows overlap between the situations. Furthermore, for a substantial proportion of responses, any one situation elicits a mixture of fearful and self-conscious reactions. We now turn to studies of children's understanding of shyness.

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Children's conceptions of shyness

Although the fundamental assumption of the developmental component of Buss's theory is that self-consciousness requires a certain stage of cognitive development it is not precise about what constitutes this stage -- what does a child have to be able to do before it can adopt the perspective of another? At what age can self-conscious shyness be identified? A range of positions has been adopted.

Reddy (Reddy, 1997; Reddy & Draghi-Lorenz, 1997) has isolated a pattern of smiling and gaze aversion in videotape recordings of young infants who are under the scrutiny of an adult observer, a pattern that is identified by adult judges as signs of shyness and coyness. Reddy (1997) argues that 'self-consciousness originates from affective reactions to attention and interpersonal contact rather than from the development of a conceptual self ... self-conscious affects fundamentally predate 'cognitions' about the self'. She suggests that infants of two to three months are already conscious of others' reactions. This pattern resembles the affect of shame as construed by Tomkins (1993).

Lewis (1995) relates the onset of embarrassment to the emergence of self-awareness at about two years, as evidenced, for example, in the young child's reactions to seeing his or her reflection in a mirror. Emergence of self-awareness, in the sense of the ability to recognize the self-image, seems to be sufficient for a feeling of being conspicuous and this can give rise to a sense of embarrassment. In support of this thesis, empirical studies have shown that overt signs of embarrassment (or perhaps of bashfulness or coyness) -- smiling, gaze aversion, and nervous movements -- can be seen among two-year-old children. Lewis (1995) argues that a further development occurs at approximately three years of age when children acquire the capacity to evaluate their own behavior in terms of shared standards of conduct. In one of his studies, three-year-old children were more likely than two-year-olds to display signs of embarrassment when requested by an adult to dance.

Yuill and Banerjee (1997) suggest that the key development is children's acquisition of a theory of mind at around four to five years. More specifically, they argued that children have to be aware that their behavior may reflect badly upon themselves and that this requires understanding of 'self-presentational display rules', the awareness that one's behavior can provide a basis for evaluation by others. They found empirical support for this position, in that only children over four years selected performing in front of others as an example of a shyness-eliciting situation, and there was a significant correlation between the tendency to select this situation and assessed awareness of self-presentational display rules.

Bennett et al (1998) investigated children's reactions to vignettes where either their friend or their mother was described as having committed a violation of a rule in a public setting, for example, by accidentally splashing water over another person waiting at a bus stop. Only two per cent of five-year-olds attributed embarrassment to the person committing the act; the proportion increased with age, with 23 per cent of eight-year-olds and 68 per cent of eleven-year-olds attributing embarrassment to the character. A second experiment also showed a marked increase in references to embarrassment at seven years.

Embarrassment can be experienced even when the individual him or herself is not at fault: one can be embarrassed for another (empathic embarrassment) and this is more likely when there is some shared identity between the self and the other. Bennett et al (1998) found that children recognized that they would experience embarrassment following the action of another from about seven years, particularly if the vignette was constructed in such a way that the child would feel some degree of responsibility for the person who committed the faux pas.

Darby and Schlenker (1986) examined the extent to which second, fourth, and seventh grade children's responses to vignettes were influenced by manipulations which varied the character's motivation to create a good impression on another person and his or her confidence in their ability to do so -- the core components of Schlenker and Leary's theory of social anxiety. All participants, including the youngest, associated the character's lack of ability with nervousness and lack of self-confidence whereas only the older children thought that stronger motivation was associated with greater anxiety.

Crozier and Burnham (1990) suggested that the key cognitive development was the child's ability to recognize that other people can take a different perspective upon him or her from the perspective he or she take and they identified this development with Selman and Byrne’s (1974) stage of self-reflective role taking, which occurs at about eight years. They examined age trends in children's conceptions of shyness through individual interviews with children aged from five to eleven years. Answers to questions were assigned to fearful shyness categories which included eliciting circumstances -- novel situations and strangers -- and fearful reactions, and to categories related to self-conscious shyness, being observed or conspicuous (speaking in front of a class or group) and feeling embarrassed (feeling foolish, going red, being embarrassed).

Application of the content analysis to the interview protocols found support for age trends in children's conceptualizations of shyness. Responses by the youngest children were dominated by fearful shyness and there was little mention of self-conscious shyness. The latter type increased across the age groups. However, this type did not replace the fearful type, and novel situations and meeting new people remained sources of shyness for the 10-11 year-old children; this age group also associated shyness with feeling embarrassed and conspicuous. This age trend was also detected in children's answers to a specific question about the situations that made them shy. Three response alternatives were provided: 'When you meet a stranger, or someone you don't know'; 'When you are asked a question in front of the whole class or in front of a lot of people'; 'When you are in the playground with all the other children'. Once again, there were significant age trends. Among the 5-6-year-olds, strangers were endorsed in 67 per cent of responses, and being asked a question in class by 17 per cent; the respective percentages for 7-8-year-olds were 37 and 58, and among the 10-11-year-olds, 25 and 65 per cent.

The self-conscious type of shyness seemed to emerge at about seven to eight years, although the evidence reported by Yuill and Banerjee (1997) suggests that if care is taken to simplify the task to ensure that it can be understood by the youngest children, this awareness can also be identified at four to five years.

Crozier (1995) reported a further attempt to investigate children's conceptions of fearful and self-conscious shyness. The task here was simpler. Children were provided with a series of target words and phrases (sadness, happiness, and being shy) and they were asked to write down the first things that came into their mind. 141 children aged between eight and eleven years participated. They produced an average of 5.55 words in response to the target 'being shy'. Girls and older children produced significantly more words, but there was no significant interaction between gender and age. The responses were entered into a database, and the frequencies of words and phrases tabulated. The most common responses, defined as those mentioned by 10 or more children, were: scared (38 mentions), hide/hiding (34), cry/crying (24), quiet (21), go red (19), frightened (19), sad (19), not talking/not speaking (17), unhappy/not happy (17), shy (16), blush/blushing (15), run away (14), nervous (13), embarrassed (11), smiling (10). Comparable responses were provided by girls and boys.

Responses were coded into fearful and self-conscious shyness categories, once again drawing upon the coding scheme provided by Buss (1984). In order to test for age and gender differences in the use of fearful and self-conscious words, the number of fearful, self-conscious and other words was calculated for each child. The proportion of fearful to total words and of self-conscious words to total words were then computed. Analysis of variance showed that there was a significant effect of word type (mean proportion of Fearful words = 0.39, mean proportion of Self-conscious words = 0.20). However, none of the remaining main effects or interaction terms was significant, showing that the target phrase referring to shyness elicited more responses of the fearful shyness type across the four age groups involved in the study.

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Discussion and Conclusion

Research has scarcely begun to investigate age changes in the experience of shyness. Studies of children's conceptions of shyness do provide some evidence for the earlier emergence of fearful shyness relative to the self-conscious form. This research also suggests that there is no fading of the fearful form nor displacement of it by self-conscious concerns. Novel situations and strangers are associated with shyness throughout childhood as, indeed, they are in adulthood.

When children are asked to think about shyness or to provide their associations with 'shyness' they refer to eliciting situations and reactions which characterize Buss's notion of self-conscious shyness as well as novel situations and fearful reactions. Similarly, adults, when asked to describe situations in which they feel shy, provide instances that can be characterized as self-conscious as well as fearful shyness. Adults report both kinds of reactions as well, but these do not map onto the situations in such a way as to suggest that there are two discrete types of shyness.

Why are references to self-conscious reactions elicited in these studies? Embarrassment (and shame) are unpleasant experiences which most people try hard to avoid. The fears of shy individuals are to a large extent fears of embarrassment and shame, of being negatively evaluated by others in public, of revealing oneself as someone who falls short of standards. Beidel and Turner (1998, p. 5) point out, 'Many of those with social phobia live in constant fear that they will embarrass themselves, appear foolish, or appear less intelligent than others'. References to being conspicuous, feeling embarrassed and blushing are consistently made (although they are not the predominant responses) in our studies of children's and adults' conceptions of shyness, and these may be reflecting those fears. Several questions remain unanswered: Are novel situations feared because they constitute a potential source of embarrassment or is this reaction to novelty an innate or more primitive one that in time becomes associated with concerns about negative evaluation? Or is there some primitive form of self-consciousness, such as Tomkins' (1963) shame affect, which develops along a parallel route into shame, embarrassment, and self-conscious shyness?

What cognitive developments are prerequisites for self-conscious shyness? This paper has referred to a number of candidates for the emergence of self-conscious shyness or embarrassment: being the object of attention; developing self-awareness in the sense of self-recognition; feeling conspicuous, that is, aware that one is potentially the object of attention; awareness that one's behavior provides a basis for evaluation by others; awareness that other people take a different perspective from one's own; the capacity to coordinate different perspectives. Theorists also need to consider the emergence of the individual's sense that he or she is responsible for their social predicaments, since internal attributions and self-deprecation seem to be elements of shyness (although not necessarily of embarrassment). Given this long list of candidates and the differences in ages at which these milestones are reached, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that more progress would be made if analysis could clarify some of important terms in this field; in particular, it would be useful to know what distinctions can be made among embarrassment, self-consciousness, and self-conscious shyness.

Consideration of the role of self-consciousness in anxiety and its development in childhood poses many questions about the nature of shyness. This paper has raised a number of these questions and has summarized some empirical studies which show that self-conscious shyness, as defined by Buss (1984), is involved in the conceptions of shyness held by both children and adults.

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Asendorpf, J. (1993). Beyond temperament: a two-factorial coping model of the development of inhibition during childhood. In K. H. Rubin, & J. Asendorpf (Eds.) (1993). Social Withdrawal, Inhibition, and Shyness in Childhood. Hove, East Sussex: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 265-289

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Crozier, WR; (1998). Shyness and Self-consciousness in Middle Childhood. Presented at INABIS '98 - 5th Internet World Congress on Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University, Canada, Dec 7-16th. Invited Symposium. Available at URL http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98/ameringen/crozier0450/index.html
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