You're Not Shy, You're Evolved

From teen movie nerds to the office weirdo to the neighborhood killer in the Lifetime Original Miniseries "The Murderer Behind My Azaleas"*, shy folks are often depicted as outcasts, weirdos, and noncontributing hangers-on.

Our cultural infatuation with extroverts has gotten so far out of hand that drugs now exist to treat extreme forms of shyness, as though the trait is something to be medicated an eliminated.


Not so fast, says Susan Cain in the New York Times. Shyness is actually an attribute that has contributed to the survival of our species. She writes that not only is shyness something that shouldn't be medicated, it should be celebrated, and any attempt to pathologize it is a scheme dreamed up by profit-hungry drug companies,

Social anxiety disorder did not officially exist until it appeared in that year's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-III, the psychiatrist's bible of mental disorders, under the name "social phobia." It was not widely known until the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies received F.D.A. approval to treat social anxiety with S.S.R.I.'s and poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising its existence. The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-IV, acknowledges that stage fright (and shyness in social situations) is common and not necessarily a sign of illness. But it also says that diagnosis is warranted when anxiety "interferes significantly" with work performance or if the sufferer shows "marked distress" about it.

Cain further explains that many evolutionary biologists have categorized animals as either "sitters" or "rovers" based on the way they behave. "Sitters" are shy animals that tend to wait on the sidelines to make sure everything's okay before venturing into the fray; "rovers" roam around looking for food, exploring and investigating. Sitters are shy animals; rovers are outgoing. While rovers are the first to warm up to new situations and explore, they're also the first to be snatched up by predators waiting for just such a curious animal.

Similar archetypes exist in the world of humans, but we call them introverts and extroverts. Both personality types have their advantages, but the extroverted personality tends to get its owner in trouble,

Relaxed and exploratory, the rovers have fun, make friends and will take risks, both rewarding and dangerous ones, as they grow. According to Daniel Nettle, a Newcastle University evolutionary psychologist, extroverts are more likely than introverts to be hospitalized as a result of an injury, have affairs (men) and change relationships (women). One study of bus drivers even found that accidents are more likely to occur when extroverts are at the wheel.

In contrast, sitter/introverted people tend to be more observant, conscientious, and careful. They're better at doing thorough work and staying on task. They also make up a large percentage of students who qualify for National Merit Scholarships (although I was unaware that the National Merit Scholarship program was keeping of records of the sitter-ness or the rovertude of its members). They're more likely to wear ponytails and glasses and be the subject of a bet featuring Freddie Prinze Junior as the Popular Guy trying to ask her to prom, except surprise! She's totally hot!

Shy kids also tend to be better behaved than their extroverted peers,

Sitters' temperaments also confer more subtle advantages. Anxiety, it seems, can serve an important social purpose; for example, it plays a key role in the development of some children's consciences. When caregivers rebuke them for acting up, they become anxious, and since anxiety is unpleasant, they tend to develop pro-social behaviors.


The justification for saying that shy students care more about being chastised is, I suppose, that introverts spend more time inside of their heads and because of that, they'd like to keep their inner space as devoid of strife as possible. Even so, I'm not sure an aversion to being publicly chewed out by an authority figure is the realm of the introverted; I'm an extrovert and I'd consider being metaphorically tarred and feathered in the public square an act that would alienate me from my favorite source of stimulus- my peers.

Introverts are also better at doing business than their extroverted peers,

A groundbreaking study led by the Wharton management professor Adam Grant, to be published this month in The Academy of Management Journal, found that introverts outperform extroverts when leading teams of proactive workers - the kinds of employees who take initiative and are disposed to dream up better ways of doing things. Professor Grant notes that business self-help guides often suggest that introverted leaders practice their communication skills and smile more. But, he told me, it may be extrovert leaders who need to change, to listen more and say less.


So all you nerds, dweeboids, goobers, dorks, and buttheads take note: don't feel bad about being shy. It's a survival mechanism, and thus far, it's served you and the human race just fine.

*not an actual Lifetime original mini series, I'm pretty sure.

Is Shyness an Evolutionary Tactic? [NYT]



I've had it drilled into me that being shy and being an introvert are not the same thing, but can I be both? As in, I'm far too terrified to attempt interactions with other humans, but that's fine because even if I could, I just want to be left the fuck alone. And does this make me a serial killer?