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In humans, timidity (also called shyness or diffidence ) is a personality trait associated with feelings of apprehension, lack of confidence, or awkwardness experienced when a person is in proximity to, approaching, or being approached by other people, especially in new situations or with unfamiliar people. The term is often used by laypersons as a blanket-term for a family of related and partially overlapping afflictions, including shyness around new people, bashfulness and diffidence, lack of assertiveness, apprehension and anticipation of interaction, social anxiety, or intimidation. Such timidity may come from personality introversion, genetic traits, or the environment in which a person is raised.

In zoology, shy generally means "tends to avoid human beings"; See crypsis. Shyness in animals manifests with ostensibly similar behavioral traits, but differs wholly from humans in cognition and motivation.

Triggers, traits and misperception

File:Girl with scarf blushing.jpg

A lack of eye contact is often perceived as a sign of shyness.

Shyness is most likely to occur during unfamiliar situations, though in severe cases it may hinder an individual in his or her most familiar situations and relationships as well. Shy individuals avoid the objects of their apprehension in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable and inept, thus the situations remain unfamiliar and the shyness perpetuates itself. Shyness may fade with time (a child who is shy toward strangers, for instance, may eventually lose this trait when older and more socially adept), often by adolescence and young adulthood (most likely around the age of 13), or it may be an integrated, life-long character trait. Humans experience shyness to different degrees and in different areas. For example, an actor may be loud and bold on stage, but shy in an interview. In addition, shyness may manifest when one is in the company of certain people and completely disappear when with others—one may be outgoing with friends and family, but experience love-shyness toward potential partners, even if strangers are generally not an obstacle.

The condition of true shyness may simply involve the discomfort of difficulty in knowing what to say in social situations, or may include crippling physical manifestations of uneasiness. Shyness usually involves a combination of both symptoms, and may be quite devastating for the sufferer, in many cases leading them to feel that they are boring, or exhibit bizarre behavior in an attempt to create interest, alienating them further. Instinctive behavioral traits in social situations such as smiling, easily producing suitable conversational topics, assuming a relaxed posture and making good eye contact, which come spontaneously for the average person, may not be second nature for a shy person, requiring struggle or being completely unattainable. Shyness is considered to be a neutral personality trait by people who are not shy, but a very negative trait by those who are shy themselves.


The term shyness may be implemented as a lay blanket-term for a family of related and partially overlapping afflictions, including timidity (apprehension in meeting new people), bashfulness and diffidence (lack of assertiveness), apprehension and anticipation (general fear of potential interaction), or intimidation (relating to the object of fear rather than one's low confidence).[1] Apparent shyness, as perceived by others, may simply be the manifestation of reservation or introversion, character traits which cause an individual to voluntarily avoid excessive social contact or be terse in communication, but are not motivated or accompanied by discomfort, apprehension, or lack of confidence.

Rather, according to Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute, introverts choose to avoid social situations because they derive no reward from them, or may find surplus sensory input overwhelming. Conversely, shy people fear such situations and feel that they must avoid them. [2] Shy people tend to perceive their own shyness as a negative trait, and many people are uneasy with shyness in others, especially in cultures which value individuality and taking charge. This generally poor reception of shyness may be misinterpreted by the suffering individual as aversion related to his or her personality, rather than simply to his or her shyness. Both conditions can lead to a compounding of a shy individual's low self-confidence.

In some cultures which value outspokenness and overt confidence, shyness can be perceived as weakness. To an unsympathetic observer, a shy individual may be mistaken as cold, distant, arrogant or aloof, which can be frustrating for the shy individual. However in other cultures, shy people may be perceived as being thoughtful, intelligent, as being good listeners, and as being more likely to think before they speak[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Furthermore, boldness, the opposite of shyness, may cause its own problems, such as impertinence or inappropriate behavior.


The initial causes of shyness vary. Scientists have located some genetic data that supports the hypothesis that shyness is at least partially genetic. However, there is also evidence that the environment in which a person is raised can affect their shyness. This includes child abuse, particularly emotional abuse such as ridicule. Shyness can originate after a person has experienced a physical anxiety reaction; at other times, shyness seems to develop first and then later causes physical symptoms of anxiety. Shyness differs from social anxiety, which is a broader, often depression-related psychological condition including the experience of fear, apprehension or worry about being evaluated by others in social situations to the extent of inducing panic.

Genetics and heredity

The genetics of shyness is a relatively small area of research that has been receiving an even smaller amount of attention, although papers on the biological bases of shyness date back to 1988. Some research has indicated that shyness and aggression are related—through long and short forms of the gene DRD4, though considerably more research on this is needed. Further, it has been suggested that shyness and social phobia (the distinction between the two is becoming ever more blurred) are related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. As with other studies of behavioral genetics, the study of shyness is complicated by the number of genes involved in, and the confusion in defining, the phenotype. Naming the phenotype – and translation of terms between genetics and psychology — also causes problems. In some research, "behavioral inhibition" is studied, in others anxiety or social inhibition is. One solution to this problem is to study the genetics of underlying traits, such as "anxious temperament."

Several genetic links to shyness are current areas of research. One is the serotonin transporter promoter region polymorphism (5-HTTLPR), the long form of which has been shown to be modestly correlated with shyness in grade school children.[1] Previous studies had shown a connection between this form of the gene and both obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Mouse models have also been used, to derive genes suitable for further study in humans; one such gene, the glutamic acid decarboxylase gene (which encodes an enzyme that functions in GABA synthesis), has so far been shown to have some association with behavioral inhibition.

Another gene, the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4) exon III polymorphism, had been the subject of studies in both shyness and aggression, and is currently the subject of studies on the "novelty seeking" trait. A 1996 study of anxiety-related traits (shyness being one of these) remarked that, "Although twin studies have indicated that individual variation in measures of anxiety-related personality traits is 40-60% heritable, none of the relevant genes has yet been identified," and that "10 to 15 genes might be predicted to be involved" in the anxiety trait. Progress has been made since then, especially in identifying other potential genes involved in personality traits, but there has been little progress made towards confirming these relationships. The long version of the 5-HTT gene-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR) is now postulated to be correlated with shyness,[1] but in the 1996 study, the short version was shown to be related to anxiety-based traits. This confusion and contradiction does not oppose the genetic basis of personality traits, but does emphasize the amount of research there is still to be done before the bases of even one or two of these characteristics can be identified.

As symptom of mercury poisoning

Excessive shyness, embarrassment, self consciousness and timidity, social-phobia and lack of self-confidence are also components of erethism, which is a symptom complex that appears in cases of mercury poisoning[2][3]. Mercury poisoning was common among hat makers in England in the 1700s and 1800s, who used mercury to stabilize wool into felt fabric.

Shyness as pathology

Shyness as a psychiatric illness made its debut as "social phobia" in DSM-III in 1980, but was then described as rare. By 1994, however, when DSM-IV was published, it had become "social anxiety disorder" and was now said to be extremely common. This process has been adverted to as a case study of "disease-mongering" in psychiatry[4]. One drug company product manager has been quoted as saying, "Every marketer's dream is to find an unidentified or unknown market and develop it. That's what we were able to do with social anxiety disorder"[5].

See also


  • Kluger, A. N.; Siegfried, Z.; Epbstein, R. P.: A meta-analysis of the association between DRD4 polymorphism and novelty seeking. Molecular Psychiatry 2002; 7: 712-717.
  • Lesch, Klaus-Peter; Bengal, Dietmar; Heils, Armin; Sabol, Sue Z.; Greenberg, Benjamin D.; Petri, Susanne; Benjamin, Jonathan; Muller, Clemens R.; Hamer, Dean H.; Murphy, Dennis L.: Association of anxiety-related traits with a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene regulatory region. Science 1996; 274(5292): 1527-1531.
  • Smoller, Jordan W.; Rosenbaum, Jerold F.; Biederman, Joseph; Susswein, Lisa S.; Kennedy, John; Kagan, Jerome; Snidman, Nancy; Laird, Nan; Tsuang, Ming T.; Faraone, Stephen V.; Schwarz, Alysandra; Slaugenhaupt, Susan A.: Genetic association analysis of behavioral inhibition using candidate loci from mouse models. American Journal of Medical Genetics 2001; 105: 226-235.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Shoshana Arbelle, Jonathan Benjamin, Moshe Golin, Ilana Kremer, Robert H. Belmaker & Richard P. Ebstein (April 2003). Relation of shyness in grade school children to the genotype for the long form of the serotonin transporter promoter region polymorphism. The American journal of psychiatry 160 (4): 671–676.
  2. WHO (1976) Environmental Health Criteria 1: Mercury, Geneva, World Health Organization, 131 pp.
  3. WHO. Inorganic mercury. Environmental Health Criteria 118. World Health Organization, Geneva, 1991.
  4. Lane, Christopher (2008), Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, Yale University Press.
  5. Angell, Marcia (2009), "Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption", New York Review of Books, Vol 56, No 1; 15 January 2009.

Further reading

External links

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