Invited Symposium: Development of Social Phobia


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Socially Anxious "Jack", Socially Avoidant "Jill": Conceptual, Biological, and Behavioral Distinctions among Different Categories of Shy Children

Contact Person: Louis A. Schmidt (schmidtl@mcmaster.ca)


"It is [our] hope, as it presumably is that of all the students whose work is reported here, that from these studies there should arise a system of taxonomy, or classification, or nosology, which may be regarded as firmly based on biological reality..." (Eysenck, 1953).

The notion that there are different types of shy children is not new. Buss (1986) argued that there are at least two types of shyness: a fearful shyness, and a self-conscious shyness. According to Buss (1986), fearful shyness is an early developing form of shyness that emerges during the second half of the first year of life and coincides with the infant's fear of strangers. Self-conscious shyness, on the other hand, is a later developing form of shyness which emerges around five to six years of age and coincides with the child's development of self and the ability to take on the perspective of others. The fearfully shy category shares many of the same features as Kagan's description of temperamentally inhibited and shy children. Kagan and his colleagues (Kagan & Snidman, 1991a,b) have identified a subset of temperamentally reactive infants who are fearful in the second year of life and exhibit a bias towards shyness during the preschool years.

More recently, Asendorpf (1990) has suggested that different types of shyness emerge as a result of differences in social approach and social avoidance motivational tendencies. According to Asendorpf (1990), social reticence (shyness) emerges from an approach-avoidance conflict. Socially reticent children wish to engage in play with their peers but cannot seem to enter the social play group successfully. We will call this group the "Jacks" of the world. This is contrasted with another type of shy child who Asendorpf describes as avoidant. This type of child is high on avoidance and low on approach behavior. We will call this group the "Jills" of the world. Similar distinctions have been described elsewhere (see, e.g., Coplan et al., 1994).

There is an interesting parallel between subtypes of childhood shyness and those described in the adult personality literature. Cheek and Buss (1981), almost a decade earlier, used a similar approach-avoidance model to describe different types of adults' shyness. Cheek and Buss (1981) found that HIGH SHY/HIGH SOCIABLE subjects exhibited more overt behavioral anxiety during a social interaction compared with subjects in the other three groups.

We (Schmidt & Fox, 1994) recently found that HIGH SHY/HIGH SOCIABLE subjects exhibited a significantly higher and more stable heart rate in anticipation of a novel social encounter compared with subjects in the other three groups. Similar to Asendorpf (1990) and Cheek and Buss (1981), we have used an approach-avoidance paradigm to account for at least two categories of shyness that form the basis of our essay.

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We have found in separate studies of young adults and six year-olds that the pattern of resting frontal EEG activity distinguishes shyness and sociability. We selected a group of undergraduates and six year-olds, some of whom were selected for high and low subjective report of shyness and sociability, and recorded resting regional EEG activity. We found that adults and children who were classified as HIGH SHY/HIGH SOCIABLE (the "Jacks" of the world) and adults and children who were classified as HIGH SHY/LOW SOCIABLE (the "Jills" of the world) both exhibited greater relative right frontal EEG activity that was a function of less power in the right lead versus the left frontal lead. The two shyness groups were distinguishable, however, based upon the pattern of activity in the left frontal EEG lead. That is, HIGH SHY/HIGH SOCIABLE subjects exhibited significantly less power (i.e., more activity) in the left frontal EEG lead compared with subjects in the HIGH SHY/LOW SOCIABLE group. These findings extend the behavioral (Cheek & Buss, 1981) and autonomic (Schmidt & Fox, 1994) findings presented earlier and suggest that shyness and sociability are distinguishable on a neurophysiological level, with each trait perhaps subserved by distinct neurophysiological systems.

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One could make a cogent argument that, in the final analyses, the primary goal of all facets scientific inquiry is to describe and classify phenomena. When classifying objects, we look for similarities as well as differences among features of the objects in question, and then use this knowledge to distinguish the objects based upon their shared and unshared properties. The ability to distinguish objects is applicable to all facets of scientific inquiry. A physican needs to be able distinguish the features associated with a benign intestinal virus from a terminal stomach cancer, although both may present with similar features. The civil engineer needs to know what distinguishes different types of soil sediments before building a bridge. Personality psychologists need to know what distinguishes one type of person from another in order to understand why people behave as they do. Regardless of the field of inquiry, the end goal is the same: to enhance prediction by reducing the amount of fuzziness around the boundaries and language we use in the description of the phenomenon we seek to understand.

Why should we be concerned with distinguishing different types of childhood shyness? It is easy to see how the language and concepts we use regarding complex human behavior can quickly become muddled and confused. Such confusion limits how we study a phenomenon and leads, oft-times, to mis-classification. For example, in the case of childhood shyness, two children may be described as shy because during peer play each child is engaged in solitary play, while other children are actively engaged in social play. Upon closer inspection, however, we notice that the quality of the play behavior for the two socially isolated children differs considerably. One child might be engaged in solitary constructive play and exhibit no overt signs of distress to the situation, while the other socially isolated children may be engaged in little to no play behavior and display overt signs of anxiety. The origins of these behaviors, their underlying causes, and the psychological meaning and outcomes of these behaviors differ considerably between the two children.

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  1. Asendorpf, J.B. (1990). Beyond social withdrawal: Shyness, unsociability and peer avoidance. Human Development, 33, 250-259.
  2. Buss, A.H. (1986). A theory of shyness. In W.H. Jones, J.M. Cheek, & S.R.
  3. Briggs (Eds.), Shyness: Perspectives on research and treatment (pp. 39-46). New York: Plenum.
  4. Cheek, J.M., & Buss, A.H. (1981). Shyness and sociability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 330-339.
  5. Coplan, R.J., Rubin, K.H., Fox, N.A., Calkins, S.D., & Stewart, S. (1994).
  6. Being alone, playing alone, and acting alone: Distinguishing among reticence and passive and active solitude in young children. Child Development, 65, 129-137.
  7. Davidson, R.J. (1993). The neuropsychology of emotion and affective style. In M. Lewis & J.M. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotion (pp.143-154). New York: Guilford.
  8. Eysenck, H.J. (1953). The structure of human personality. London: Methuen and Company.
  9. Fox, N.A. (1991). If it's not left, it's right: Electroencephalogram asymmetry and the development of emotion. American Psychologist, 46, 863-872.
  10. Fox, N.A. (1994). Dynamic cerebral processes underlying emotion regulation.
  11. In N.A. Fox (Ed.), The development of emotion regulation: Behavioral and biological considerations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (pp. 152-166). 59 (2-3, Serial No. 240).
  12. Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (1991a). Temperamental factors in human development. American Psychologist, 46, 856-862.
  13. Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (1991b). Infant predictors of inhibited and uninhibited profiles. Psychological Science, 2, 40-44.
  14. Schmidt, L.A., & Fox, N.A. (1994). Patterns of cortical electrophysiology and autonomic activity in adults' shyness and sociability. Biological Psychology, 38, 183-198.
  15. Schmidt, L.A., & Fox, N.A. (1998). The development and outcomes of childhood shyness: A multiple psychophysiological measure approach.
  16. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of Child Development (Vol 13, pp.1-20). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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Schmidt, LA.; (1998). Socially Anxious "Jack", Socially Avoidant "Jill": Conceptual, Biological, and Behavioral Distinctions among Different Categories of Shy Children. 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/schmidt0319/index.html
© 1998 Author(s) Hold Copyright