Shyness and Behavioral Inhibition Research Paper

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Since the 1980s, the study of shyness, behavioral inhibition, and social withdrawal in childhood has taken on a research trajectory that can best be described as voluminous. Yet, these related phenomena remain something of a mystery, carrying with them a variety of definitions and a number of very different perspectives concerning psychological significance. Because there appear to be several different characterizations of forms of shy, inhibited, or nonsocial behavior, the first goal of this research paper is to provide a definitional framework.

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1. Shyness, Behavioral Inhibition, And Social Withdrawal: Definitions

In their efforts to identify the etiology of children’s personalities and social behaviors, developmental scientists have attempted to determine the relevant dispositional dimensions of temperament that may underlie children’s actions that are displayed consistently across situations, and continuously over time. One such dispositional construct is Behavioral inhibition (Kagan 1997). Behavioral inhibition has been defined variously as (a) an inborn bias to respond to unfamiliar events by showing anxiety; (b) a specific vulnerability to the uncertainty all children feel when encountering unfamiliar events that cannot be assimilated easily; and (c) one end of a continuum of possible initial behavioral reactions to unfamiliar objects or challenging social situations. These definitions highlight some common elements: behavioral inhibition is (a) a pattern of responding or behaving, (b) possibly biologically determined, such that (c) when unfamiliar and/or challenging situations are encountered, (d) the child shows signs of anxiety, distress, or disorganization.

The term shyness has been used to refer to inhibition in response to novel social situations. In infancy and early childhood, shyness is elicited by feelings of anxiety and distress when confronted by unfamiliar people. To some, such behavior serves an adaptive purpose in that it removes children from situations they perceive as discomforting and dangerous (Buss 1986). But variability of the infantile shyness response is great; some children clearly demonstrate the behavior excessively.

In middle childhood, children have the cognitive skill to compare themselves with others and to understand that others can, and do, pass judgment on them. It is this understanding of social comparison and evaluation that can elicit shy behavior among older children, adolescents and adults (Buss 1986). That is, children may remove themselves from situations they believe will be discomforting because others will pass judgment on their skills, personae, and so on. Again, variability is great; some children display shyness that is clearly out-of-the ordinary.

A related construct is social withdrawal, a phenomenon that refers to the consistent (across situations and over time) display of solitary behavior when encountering both familiar and/or unfamiliar peers (Rubin and Stewart 1996). Thus, shyness is embedded within the construct of social withdrawal. The common denominator for inhibition, shyness, and social withdrawal is that the representative behavior is one that moves children away from their social worlds, that is, solitude.

2. Different Forms Of Inhibition, Shyness, And Solitude

Inhibited behavior in the face of the unfamiliar typically has been assessed by observing very young children as they are confronted by unfamiliar adults, objects, or peers. Insofar as shyness is concerned, it is best exemplified behaviorally by the display of socially reticent behavior during the preschool and early childhood periods. Among unfamiliar others, reticent preschoolers hang back, watching peers from afar; they make few social initiations and back away from initiations made by others. When asked to speak up in groups of unfamiliar peers, reticent children choose not to do so at all, and if they do speak, it is uncomfortably and for a very short period of time. Further, when asked to collaborate with peers to solve problems, they spend their time watching others rather than providing the requested help.

Reticence is one of several forms of solitude demonstrated by children (Rubin and Asendorpf 1993). Some preschoolers appear to be satisfied playing with objects rather than people. These children play alone, constructing and exploring objects. The term used to describe such behavior is solitary-passivity (Coplan et al. 1994). When others initiate interaction with solitary-passive children, they do not back away; further, they participate fully and actively in-group problem-solving behavior. Thus unlike shy children who have a high social avoidance motivation, those whose solitary behavior is mainly of the solitary-passive ilk may be described as having a low social approach motivation.

Still yet other children demonstrate solitude that appears to reflect immaturity. These young children engage in solitary-sensorimotor activity (solitary-active play), repeating motor movements with or without objects (Coplan et al. 1994).

2.1 Developmental Differences And Change

Typically all forms of solitude decrease from early through middle and late childhood. As noted above, causes of shy behavior change from early wariness to the anxiety associated with being socially evaluated. While reticent behavior tends to decrease with age, it is also the case that the ‘meanings’ of different forms of solitude change as well. For example, as children come to cope with their social anxieties among unfamiliar peers, they become increasingly likely to display that form of solitude that had been viewed earlier as normal and adaptive—solitary-exploration and construction. Thus, with increasing age, such constructive solitude becomes increasingly associated with measures of social wariness, and physiological markers of anxiety and emotion dysregulation (see below).

3. Putative Causes Of Inhibition, Shyness, And Social Withdrawal

3.1 Physiology

Behavioral inhibition has been thought to emanate from a physiological ‘hard wiring’ that evokes caution, wariness, and timidity in unfamiliar social and nonsocial situations. Inhibited infants and toddlers differ from their uninhibited counterparts in ways that imply variability in the threshold of excitability of the amygdala and its projections to the cortex, hypothalamus, sympathetic nervous system, corpus striatum, and central gray. That there is a physiological basis underpinning behavioral inhibition is drawn from numerous psychophysiological studies. For example, stable patterns of right frontal EEG asymmetries in infancy predict temperamental fearfulness and behavioral inhibition in early childhood (Calkins et al. 1996). The functional role of hemispheric asymmetries in the regulation of emotion may be understood in terms of an underlying motivational basis for emotional behavior, specifically along the approach–withdrawal continuum. Infants exhibiting greater relative right frontal asymmetry are more likely to withdraw from mild stress, whereas infants exhibiting the opposite pattern of activation are more likely to approach.

Another physiological entity that distinguishes wary from nonwary infants and toddlers is vagal tone, an index of the functional status or efficiency of the nervous system, marking both general reactivity and the ability to regulate one’s level of arousal. Reliable associations have been found between vagal tone and inhibition in infants and toddlers: children with lower vagal tone (consistently high heart rate due to less parasympathetic influence) tend to be more behaviorally inhibited (Kagan et al. 1987).

In early childhood, reticent behavior is associated with the same physiological markers as is the case for behavioral inhibition in infancy and toddlerhood. Thus, in early childhood, reticent, fearful, solitary behavior is associated with greater relative right frontal EEG activation; but constructive solitude is not (Fox et al. 1996). Further, parents view children who have such EEG asymmetries as anxious. Among older, elementary school-age children, shy, reticent behavior among familiar peers (i.e., social withdrawal) has been associated positively with internalized negative emotions such as nervousness, distress, and upset; and negatively related to positive emotions such as enthusiasm and excitement.

3.2 Parent–Child Relationships

Attachment theorists maintain that the primary relationship develops during the first year of life, usually between the mother and the infant (Bowlby 1973). Maternal sensitivity and responsiveness influence whether the relationship will be secure or insecure. Researchers have shown that securely attached infants are likely to be well adjusted, socially competent, and successful at forming peer relationships in early and middle childhood whereas insecurely attached children may be less successful at social developmental tasks.

Researchers have proposed that those infants who are temperamentally reactive and who receive insensitive, unresponsive parenting come to develop an insecure-ambivalent (‘C’-type) attachment relationship with their primary caregivers (e.g., Calkins and Fox 1992). In novel settings these ‘C’ babies maintain close proximity to the attachment figure (usually the mother). When the mother leaves the room briefly, these infants become quite unsettled. Upon reunion with the mother, these infants show angry, resistant behaviors interspersed with proximity—or contact seeking behaviors. It is argued further that this constellation of infant emotional hyperarousability and insecure attachment may lead the child to display inhibited/wary behaviors as a toddler, and there are data supportive of this conjecture.

Given that the social behaviors of preschoolers and toddlers who have an insecure ‘C’-type attachment history are thought to be guided largely by fear of rejection, it is unsurprising to find that when these children are observed in peer group settings, they appear to avoid rejection by demonstrating passive, adult-dependent behavior and withdrawal from social interaction. Lastly, ‘C’ babies lack confidence and assertiveness at age 4 years; then, at age 7 years they are seen as passively withdrawn (Renken et al. 1989).

3.3 Parenting

Recently, researchers have shown that parental influence and control maintain and exacerbate child inhibition and social withdrawal. For example, mothers of extremely inhibited toddlers have been observed to display overly solicitous behaviors (i.e., intrusively controlling, unresponsive, physically affectionate). Mothers of shy preschoolers do not encourage independence and exploration. And mothers of socially withdrawn children tend to be highly controlling, overprotective, and poor reciprocators of their child’s displays of positive behavior and positive affect. Lastly, researchers have shown that mothers of socially withdrawn children are more likely than those of normal children to use such forms of psychological control statements, as devaluation, criticism, and disapproval. Taken together, these parenting practices may attack the child’s sense of self-worth (for a review, see Rubin et al. 1995).

4. Correlates And Consequences Of Inhibition, Shyness, And Social Withdrawal

Researchers who have followed, longitudinally, the course of development for inhibited infants have found strong consistency of behavior over time. As a group, children identified as extremely inhibited are more likely to be socially wary with unfamiliar peers in both the laboratory and at school, and to exhibit signs of physiological stress during social interactions (Kagan et al. 1987). In a longitudinal study extending into adulthood, Caspi and Silva (1995) found that individuals identified as shy, fearful, and withdrawn at 3 years reported that they preferred to stick with safe activities, be cautious, submissive, and had little desire to influence others at 18 years. A subsequent follow-up at age 21 on interpersonal functioning showed that these same children were normally adjusted in both their work settings and their romantic relationships.

Social withdrawal appears to carry with it the risk of a child’s developing negative thoughts and feelings about the self. Highlighting the potential long-term outcomes of social withdrawal is a recent report which showed that social withdrawal among familiar peers in school at age 7 years predicted negative self-perceived social competence, low self-worth, loneliness, and felt peer-group insecurity among adolescents aged 14 years (Rubin et al. 1995). These latter findings are augmented by related research findings. For example, Renshaw and Brown (1993) found that passive withdrawal at age 9 to 12 years predicted loneliness assessed one year later. Ollendick et al. (1990) reported that 10 year-old socially withdrawn children were more likely to be perceived by peers as withdrawn and anxious, more disliked by peers, and more likely to have dropped out of school than their well-adjusted counterparts five years later. Finally, Morison and Masten (1991) indicated that children perceived by peers as withdrawn and isolated in middle childhood were more likely to think negatively of their social competencies and relationships in adolescence. In sum, it would appear as if early social withdrawal, or its relation to anxiety, represents a behavioral marker for psychological and interpersonal maladaptation in childhood and adolescence.

5. Summary And Future Directions

The study of inhibition and shyness garnered an enormous amount of attention in the 1990s. Most empirical research has focused on the contemporaneous and predictive correlates of social reticence, shyness, and withdrawal at different points in childhood and adolescence. These correlated variables include those of the biological, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and psychopathology ilk that have been chosen from conceptual frameworks pertaining to the etiology, stability, and outcomes of socially wary and withdrawn behaviors. Thus far, it appears that socially inhibited children have a biological disposition that fosters emotional dysregulation in the company of others. These children, if overly directed and protected by their primary caregiver, become reticent and withdrawn in the peer group. In turn, such behavior precludes the development of social skills and the initiation and maintenance of positive peer relationships. Yet again, this transactional experience seems to lead children to develop anxiety, loneliness, and negative self-perceptions of their relationships and social skills.

Despite these strong conclusions, however, it is important to recognize that the data bases upon which these conclusions rest are relatively few. Clearly, replication work is necessary. The extent to which dispositional factors interact with parenting styles and parent–child relationships to predict the consistent display of socially withdrawn behavior in familiar peer contexts still needs to be established. Further, the sex differences discussed above require additional attention.

Lastly, our knowledge of the developmental course of inhibition, shyness, and social withdrawal is constrained by the almost sole reliance on data gathered in Western cultures. Little is known about the developmental course of these phenomena in Eastern cultures such as those in China, Japan, or India; and even less is known in Southern cultures such as those found in South America, Africa, and southern Europe. It may well be that depending on the culture within which these phenomena are studied, the biological, interpersonal, and intrapersonal causes, concomitants, and consequences of inhibition, shyness, and social withdrawal may vary. In short, cross-cultural research is necessary, not only for the study of these phenomena, but also for most behaviors that are viewed as deviant or reflective of intrapsychic abnormalities in the West.


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