Development of Social Phobia

Dr. Asendorpf: Commentary

Jonathan Oakman



Asendorpf, JB (Institut fuer Psychologie, Humboldt-Universitaet Berlin,



Contact Person: Jens B. Asendorpf (


Since most of the contributions were concerned with drawing distinctions among shy children and adults, my commentary focuses on four such distinctions: shyness versus unsociability, fearful versus self-conscious shyness, fear of strangers versus fear of evaluation, and fear of being scrutinized versus fear of evaluation. The distinction between withdrawn and dependent shyness proposed by Cheek may be an additionally important distinction but his presentation lacked detail about empirical evidence.


1. Shyness versus unsociability:

It is interesting that Schmidt could replicate the finding for young adults and 6-year-olds that shy-sociable participants can be distinguished from shy-unsociable individuals through a higher left-frontal activation, and shys from non-shys through a higher relative right-frontal activation. I missed however a discussion of the meaning of this result. Left-frontal activation has been associated with approach tendencies, and right-frontal activation with avoidance tendencies, in the psychophysiological literature, and from this perspective the finding suggests that shyness is characterized by a relative dominance of avoidance tendencies, and sociability by approach tendencies. These results fit the motivational view that unsociability is characterized by a lack of social approach and avoidance motivation whereas shyness is characterized by avoidance motivation alone. However, it is not clear to me why subjects in a laboratory resting situation should be approach motivated at all (e.g., motivated to get in contact with the experimenter?).

Coplan once more confirmed in his extreme group analysis the finding by Asendorpf (1991) and Coplan et al. (1994) that judgments of preschool children's shyness are associated with reticent behavior (onlooking and unoccupied), lack of parallel play, and lack of or no relation with solitary-passive activity. I like to add that Asendorpf (1991) found that this picture changed as the children in his longitudinal study grew older. At age 8, parental judgments of shyness correlated .36 with solitary-passive activity and .00 with parallel play. It is tempting to consider solitary-passive activity as a behavioral measure of unsociability in free play situations at least in preschool children but early findings by Rubin and Hinde on a positive correlation between solitary-passive and sociable behavior question this approach. The best evidence for the distinction between shy and unsociable children is, in my view, provided by the field study by Asendorpf and Meier (1993) that is rarely cited by developmental psychologists. Second graders' vocalizations were recorded throughout 5 school days from morning till evening, and their social situations were reconstructed from daily logs of their caregivers. Shyness and unsociability were assessed through parental scales. Shyness and unsociability effects on behavior did not interact. Shy children vocalized less in interactions with strangers and larger peer groups than non-shy children but not in more familiar situations, and spent as much time in social interaction outside school as nonshy children. Unsociable children spent less time in social interaction outside school than sociable children, but vocalized as much as sociable children within interactions of any type. Thus, shy children were as sociable as nonshy children but were inhibited in the presence of strangers and larger groups. Unsociable children were not so much interested in social interaction in general, but if they interacted, they interacted normally.


2. Fearful vs self-conscious shyness; fear of strangers vs fear of evaluation:

I have problems with the distinction between fearful and self-conscious shyness by Buss (1984) because his concept of fearful shyness includes both fear of strangers and fear of rejection. Instead, I would sort fear of strangers and unfamiliar groups in one category and fear of negative evaluation (=rejection), fear of insufficiently positive evaluation (neglect; see the important remark by Leary and Kowalski on this issue) and negatively biased public self-awareness in another category. Public self-awareness does not necessarily lead to shyness, as Buss seems to assume; it can also lead to pride when expectations of positive social evaluations are high. Fear of evaluation, however, is always accompanied by high public self-awareness. From this view, chronic public self-awareness is not the critical factor that distinguishes between fear of evaluation and fear of strangers; the critical factor is negatively biased chronic public self-awareness. It is simply a necessary cognitive component of fear of negative evaluation. Indeed, Asendorpf (1989) found that shy students, as compared to nonshy students, reported in evaluative situations not more cognitions related to others' impressions about them but more negatively biased cognitions of this type, and reported in non-evaluative confrontations with strangers very few cognitions indicative of public self-awareness. Chronic public self-awareness may characterize not only shy people but also non-shy narcissists. That chronic public self-awareness and shyness are often associated may be due to an ambiguity in the English term "self-consciousness" that means both being aware of oneself and being uneasy about oneself. In German, the term for being aware of oneself is "selbstbewusst" which also means being assertive! Thus, self-awareness is seen in a positive context.

Crozier refers to the work of Lewis on the emergence of self-conscious reactions in the second year. Particularly interesting is in this respect the finding by Lewis et al. (1989) that only children who recognized themselves in a mirror (rouge test) reacted embarrassed when they were invited by the experimenter to dance. According to these authors, the mental capacity for objective self-representation (as assessed by the rouge test) is a necessary cognitive requirement for embarrassment. However, Asendorpf and Baudonniere (1993) could not replicate this finding in a larger sample of 112 children (this part of the study was not reported in the publication) although we carefully analyzed the videotapes of the children for all kinds of potential indicators of embarrassment. Only few children reacted embarrassed at all, and this was not related to the result of the rouge test. It is important to distinguish studies of spontaneous occurrences of self-conscious emotions such as Lewis et al.'s from interview studies of older children where it is tested whether they report cognitions indicative of public self-awareness. The cognitive capacity for public self-awareness can develop much earlier than the ability to report on such cognitions, of course.


3. Fear of being scrutinized vs. fear of evaluation:

Crozier also cites the interesting studies by Reddy and Draghi-Lorenz on young infants' behavior to adults' scrutinity. It is extremely unlikely that infants at an age of 2 or 3 months are aware of themselves as objects of their thought (they have no Me in the Jamesian sense). Therefore Reddy argues that "self-conscious reactions" may be shaped much earlier through early interactions with their caregivers although she does not provide any evidence for such a socializing process. An alternative interpretation refers to the notion developed by ethologists that being scrutinized, particularly stares of conspecifics or potential predators, arouses a form of fear that is more deeply rooted in evolutionary history than the more recent, human advancement of being able for self-awareness and self-conscious emotions. Perhaps the young infants in Reddy's experiments reacted on the basis of this system.

Most interesting I found the observation by Oakman and colleagues that self-reports of social phobics on the LSAS revealed a typological component that can be related to interindividual differences in fear of scrutiny. Although the authors correctly observed that their comparative analysis of the RCBSHY and the LSAS is not wholly convincing because both scales include items referring to fear of strangers and fear of evaluation, they are also right in pointing out that the RCBSHY (as well as most other shyness scales) cover less fear of scrutiny. That fear of scrutiny comes out unexpectedly as a potential explanatory factor in infants and clinical groups may be non-accidental; often, early development and clinical cases reveal more about behavioral systems that are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past than studies of normal adults because these systems are often actively inhibited by more recently evolved cortical systems that dominate adult human behavior unless they break down under pathological circumstances. One option for future studies of this type of fear is to study its behavioral consequences at different ages, beginning at 2-3 months and ending in adulthood, relative to other fear-arousing stimuli such as non-staring strangers and non-staring negatively evaluating acquaintances.



Asendorpf, J.B. (1989). Shyness as a final common pathway for two different kinds of inhibition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 481-492.

Asendorpf, J.B. (1991). Development of inhibited children's coping with unfamiliarity. Child Development, 62, 1480-1474.

Asendorpf, J.B., & Baudonniere, P.-M. (1993). Self-awareness and other-awareness: Mirror self-recognition and synchronic imitation among unfamiliar peers. Developmental Psychology, 29, 88-95.

Asendorpf, J.B., & Meier, G.H. (1993). Personality effects on children's speech in everyday life: Sociability-mediated exposure and shyness-mediated reactivity to social situations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 1072-1083.

Coplan, R.J., Rubin, K.H., Fox, N.A., Calkins, S.D., & Stewart, S.L. (1994). Being alone, playing alone, and acting alone: Distinguishing among reticence, and passive- and active-solitude in young children. Child Development, 65, 129-138.

Lewis, M., Sullivan, M.W., Stanger, C., & Weiss, M. (1989). Self-development and self-conscious emotions. Child Development, 60, 146-156.


Jens B. Asendorpf

Institut für Psychologie

Humboldt-Universität Berlin

Oranienburger Str.18

D-10178 Berlin


Phone +49-30-285165-238 (Secretary) -239 (direct)

Fax +49-30-285165-338


Internet homepage

[ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Index ]           Sun Dec 6