The Advantages of Shyness

Behavioral scientists have confirmed what shy people of the world have known for quite some time — that timidity and introversion can be beneficial traits. Yes, shyness is not a disorder!

Several studies of humans and animals show that shyness and assertiveness are both beneficial, dependent on the situational context. Researchers have shown that evolution favors both types of personality, and in fact, often rewards adaptability versus pathological extremes at either end of the behavioral spectrum.

From the New Scientist:

“Don’t be shy!” It’s an oft-heard phrase in modern western cultures where go-getters and extroverts appear to have an edge and where raising confident, assertive children sits high on the priority list for many parents. Such attitudes are understandable. Timidity really does hold individuals back. “Shy people start dating later, have sex later, get married later, have children later and get promoted later,” says Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. In extreme cases shyness can even be pathological, resulting in anxiety attacks and social phobia.

In recent years it has emerged that we are not the only creatures to experience shyness. In fact, it is one of the most obvious character traits in the animal world, found in a wide variety of species from sea anemones and spiders to birds and sheep. But it is also becoming clear that in the natural world fortune doesn’t always favour the bold. Sometimes the shy, cautious individuals are luckier in love and lifespan. The inescapable conclusion is that there is no one “best” personality – each has benefits in different situations – so evolution favours both.

Should we take a lesson from these findings and re-evaluate what it means to be a shy human? Does shyness have survival value for us too? Some researchers think so and are starting to find that people who are shy, sensitive and even anxious have some surprising advantages over more go-getting types. Perhaps it is time to ditch our negative attitude to shyness and accept that it is as valuable as extroversion. Carducci certainly thinks so. “Think about what it would be like if everybody was very bold,” he says. “What would your daily life be like if everybody you encountered was like Lady Gaga?”

One of the first steps in the rehabilitation of shyness came in the 1990s, from work on salamanders. An interest in optimality – the idea that animals are as efficient as possible in their quest for food, mates and resources – led Andrew Sih at the University of California, Davis, to study the behaviour of sunfish and their prey, larval salamanders. In his experiments, he couldn’t help noticing differences between individual salamanders. Some were bolder and more active than others. They ate more and grew faster than their shyer counterparts, but there was a downside. When sunfish were around, the bold salamanders were just “blundering out there and not actually doing the sort of smart anti-predator behaviour that simple optimality theory predicted they would do”, says Sih. As a result, they were more likely to be gobbled up than their shy counterparts.

Until then, the idea that animals have personalities – consistent differences in behaviour between individuals – was considered controversial. Sih’s research forced a rethink. It also spurred further studies, to the extent that today the so-called “shy-bold continuum” has been identified in more than 100 species. In each of these, individuals range from highly “reactive” to highly “proactive”: reactive types being shy, timid, risk-averse and slow to explore novel environments, whereas proactive types are bold, aggressive, exploratory and risk-prone.

Why would these two personality types exist in nature? Sih’s study holds the key. Bold salamander larvae may risk being eaten, but their fast growth is a distinct advantage in the small streams they normally inhabit, which may dry up before more cautious individuals can reach maturity. In other words, each personality has advantages and disadvantages depending on the circumstances. Since natural environments are complex and constantly changing, natural selection may favour first one and then the other or even both simultaneously.

The idea is illustrated even more convincingly by studies of a small European bird, the great tit. The research, led by John Quinn at University College Cork in Ireland, involved capturing wild birds and putting each separately into a novel environment to assess how proactive or reactive it was. Some hunkered down in the fake tree provided and stayed there for the entire 8-minute trial; others immediately began exploring every nook and cranny of the experimental room. The birds were then released back into the wild, to carry on with the business of surviving and breeding. “If you catch those same individuals a year later, they tend to do more or less the same thing,” says Quinn. In other words, exploration is a consistent personality trait. What’s more, by continuously monitoring the birds, a team led by Niels Dingemanse at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, observed that in certain years the environment favours bold individuals – more survive and they produce more chicks than other birds – whereas in other years the shy types do best.

A great tit’s propensity to explore is usually similar to that of its parents and a genetic component of risk-taking behaviour has been found in this and other species. Even so, nurture seems to play a part in forming animal personalities too (see “Nurturing Temperament”). Quinn’s team has also identified correlations between exploring and key survival behaviours: the more a bird likes to explore, the more willing it is to disperse, take risks and act aggressively. In contrast, less exploratory individuals were better at solving problems to find food.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image courtesy of Psychology today.

114 thoughts on “The Advantages of Shyness”

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