Development of Social Phobia

Preface to the symposium on the development of social phobia.

Jonathan Oakman

Preface to the symposium on the development of social phobia.


The purpose of this symposium is to bring together researchers interested in the development, course and treatment of social anxiety and social phobia, including those who study shyness and social anxiety in childhood and those who study adult and clinical populations. As will soon become apparent to the reader of these papers, there is a considerable diversity of terminology, classification schemes, and conceptual models presented in this symposium. The reader is encouraged to brave this diversity. Such an effort will be rewarded with what promises to be a very generative discussion of common themes. In the interest of orienting the reader to the papers and discussion, we provide here a brief summary of the themes emerging at the outset of this symposium.

Social phobia is defined in the DSM-IV1 as "a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur... Most often, the social or performance situation is avoided, although sometimes it is endured with dread". The defining feature of social phobia is the pathological experience of extreme social anxiety. Social anxiety is often defined in terms of the three central components of the experience: autonomic reactivity such as accelerated heart rate, sweating, and respiration, a preoccupation with fear of negative evaluation or embarrassment, and avoidance of (or a desire to avoid) the social situation. Shyness is described in highly similar terms. However, avoidance seems to be a less central component to shyness than it is to social anxiety.

Many of the papers in this symposium focus on the development of shyness. A distinction is commonly made between early developing (fearful) shyness and later developing (self-conscious) shyness5. Fearful shyness is thought by many to be based on infant stranger fears, whereas self-conscious shyness is thought to develop later as the child begins to "see oneself through the eyes of another." Cheek uses the two types of Buss and Plomin5 as a starting place and elaborates a more complex "four types" model of shyness.

Work on the social play of preschoolers (as discussed by Coplan and reviewed by Crozier and Cheek) often differentiates among several distinct patterns of social play. Among these are social play, solitary play, and reticent behaviour. Of these, reticent behaviour seems to have important later outcomes in terms of social anxiety. The appearance of reticence implies that the child wants to be part of some social activity, but is somehow inhibited from doing so. Many of the symposium participants make reference to this sort of conflict situation, whether they call it "approach / avoid" (Coplan), or being both shy and sociable (Schmidt).

Considerable evidence points to a biological (perhaps genetic) basis for social anxiety. Cheek refers to this behavioral genetic evidence as an "organic trait" influence. Schneier refers to the possible role of dopamine in social phobia, which may be an effect of genetics and a cause of social anxiety. As he hastens to point out, however, low dopamine receptivity density may be a result of an experience similar to that of repeated "social defeat."  Schmidt also points to basic bio-behavioural differences among people that might account for the experience of trait-like social anxiety in some people. He compares two groups of shy children: a group of children who are avoidant, and a second group of children who seem to have both approach and avoidant tendencies. Schmidt finds frontal EEG differences between these groups, and speculates about individual differences in amygdaloid functioning and the consequent sensitivity to the experience of negative emotion.

In contrast to the "social anxiety as trait" perspective embodied in many of the conference presentations (e.g. Oakman et al.), Leary and Kowalski examine the function of the experience of social anxiety for regulating social behaviour generally. As most of our conference participants point out, social anxiety is a natural consequence of the appraisal of social threat and likely has deep evolutionary roots. Leary and Kowalski hypothesize that social anxiety is the output of a process referred to as the "sociometer" that monitors cues of relational devaluation or disaffiliation. According to this model, social anxiety warns us to take steps for relational repair and trait-like social anxiety is the result of a miscalibration of the sociometer.

Crozier and Cheek both point to adolescence as a turning point in the development of self-conscious shyness. Cheek points out that the typical age of onset for social phobia is adolescence, and Crozier points out that adolescence is a time when self-conscious and social evaluative shyness reach their crescendo in normal development. Albano presents a report of a treatment study for adolescents with social phobia which incorporates treatment components intended to target important aspects of social anxiety at this critical time in development.  Both Cheek and Crozier note that social anxiety seems to start at somewhat different times for different people. Cheek articulates four types of shyness which develop at different times. Crozier points to the salience of self-conscious shyness, especially during adolescence and adulthood, and connects the development of this type of shyness to the emerging self-concept.

These papers cover the ground from early childhood to adolescence and beyond. The theme is how social anxiety develops as the result of a some additive or synergistic combination of physiology and temperament, social interactions and learning, and the capacity to evaluate oneself as a social object. These researchers emphasize different aspects of what must be an extremely complex interactive model.

Dr. Asendorpf is uniquely well-suited to be the discussant for this symposium. Dr. Asendorpf has published widely on a variety of topics including the development of inhibition during childhood2, traits and relationship status4, and longitudinal research focused on the prediction of the development of social anxiety3. In addition, he has written extensively about the importance of understanding the different kinds of solitude in childhood. In an excellent summary of nonclinical studies of children who do not often interact with their peers, Asendorpf3 has described three different kinds of childhood solitude: temperamental shyness, social-evaluative shyness, and unsociability, which can all be clearly distinguished from social non-acceptance.

As Dr. Asendorpf has noted 3, it is clear that much more research is required before we will understand the correlates and long-term outcomes of different types of solitude in clinical samples. We welcome Dr. Asendorpf and trust that attending this symposium and monitoring the discussion will provide researchers with the opportunity to see common themes juxtaposed in new and interesting ways and guide the clinicians among us towards a better understanding of when to intervene and how to focus our interventions.




  1. American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

  2. Asendorpf, J.B. (1990). Development of inhibition during childhood: Evidence for situational specificity and a two-factor model. Developmental Psychology, 26, 721-730.

  3. Asendorpf, J.B. (1993) Abnormal shyness in children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34, 1069-1081.

  4. Asendorpf, J.B., & van Aken, M.A.G. (1993). Traits and relationship status: Stranger versus peer group inhibition and test intelligence versus peer group competence as early predictors of later self-esteem. Child Development, 65, 1786-1798.

  5. Buss, A.H., & Plomin, R. (1984). Temperament: Early developing personality traits. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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