Psychologist Philip Zimbardo Leads Shy People Out of the World of Wallflowers

Carol Burnett and Joan Sutherland both have suffered from severe shyness. So have Lawrence Welk and Barbara Walters. Nancy Walker has described herself as “probably one of the shyest, most introverted ladies that ever walked.” For some people shyness is a permanent affliction. Others become shy only in certain situations—when speaking in public or meeting strangers at a party.

Now Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist at Stanford University, has written a first-aid book on the subject called Shyness: What It Is, What to Do About It (Addison-Wesley, $9.95). Zimbardo, 44, has been running a shyness clinic at Stanford for two years. A graduate of Brooklyn College, he received his Ph.D. at Yale and taught there and at New York University, Columbia and the University of Hawaii. Zimbardo is married to Christina Maslach, a former student of his who now teaches her own psychology classes at Berkeley. They have a daughter, Zara, 20 months, and Zimbardo also has a 14-year-old son, Adam, from a previous marriage. Recently Zimbardo talked about shyness with Nancy Faber of PEOPLE.

What is shyness?

Shyness is a psychological reaction that a surprisingly large number of people experience when they imagine others are evaluating them—and they assume the worst. At the core of shyness is a fear of being rejected, not being worthy of being liked or loved.

Why should we be concerned with this?

First of all because of its prevalence. About 40 percent of all Americans consider themselves shy, and another 40 percent say they used to be shy. Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is that 60 percent of all these shy people say shyness is a serious personal problem. The majority feel helpless to do anything about it.

What are the penalties for being shy?

Shyness makes it impossible for people to make the human connection. The extreme consequence of shyness is some of the most severe kinds of pathological behavior imaginable. For example, the sudden mass murderer who is full of frozen violence is in reality an overcontrolled, highly inhibited, shy person. Shyness can also lead to alcoholism—which begins as just a few drinks to relieve social anxiety. And shy people have fewer sexual experiences. Often sex makes them physically ill. They will say it is not worth the effort because they are so full of anxiety. Shy men often turn to prostitutes to satisfy their sexual desires in an impersonal way.

These are extremes. What about the average shy person?

Shyness abhors freedom. By that I mean the shy person is made most anxious by novel, unfamiliar, unstructured situations. He prefers, and performs better when there is, minimal freedom. This disturbs me because shy people may, in fact, form the backbone of the silent majority, which supports the political status quo—especially a dictatorship. Dictators always strike a Faustian bargain: You give me your freedom and I’ll give you the illusion of security.

Were you ever shy?

No, never. I was the oldest in a Sicilian immigrant family and responsible for making other people happy. We were very poor, but my mother would encourage me to do what I could to make my brothers and sister feel comfortable. It was never a burden though. I see myself as playing the role of the person who puts others at ease. Therefore, teaching comes naturally to me.

Isn’t shyness easy to spot?

The shy introvert is. He blushes, stammers, cannot make eye contact, doesn’t know how to start a conversation, acts awkward and makes you feel uncomfortable. All previous impressions were based on these people. However, we discovered other kinds of less obvious shy people.

Such as?

Shy extraverts. These are people who appear to have it all together. They know how to behave in their power domain, especially when playing a part or a role. These include the shy show business performers. Their discomfort is experienced when they are not performing their role.

Are there other types?

There is another group I would call shy bullies, who keep people at a distance by taking the offensive. They are belligerent, verbally aggressive and domineering. These people evaluate others before they themselves can be put on the spot. I would imagine William Buckley might fall into this category. He and attorney Melvin Belli are the type of person who would make me feel shy.

How can so many Americans be shy when we are known around the world as extraverts?

People from other countries are surprised to discover so many shy Americans, because we give the appearance of being outgoing. But the typical “Hi, how are you” and the pat on the back often mask a fear of a more intimate relationship. Instant friendliness is easier than trying to cultivate deeper, more personal relationships.

Have you studied shy people in foreign countries?

Yes. We found shyness is universal. Studies in Japan and Taiwan, for example, show about 60 percent of the people in those countries view themselves as shy. But there are other countries—Israel and mainland China, for example—where shyness is less frequent and less serious.

Why is this?

Shyness is a symptom of some very basic cultural programming. For example, in Israel a child is lavishly praised for even the most modest performance, but if he fails he is not held responsible. Failure is blamed on externals: The test was too difficult, the competition was not appropriate. But in Japan when a person succeeds he does not get credit. He must modestly conceal it. The notion is that anyone who worked that hard could achieve the same success. But when a Japanese fails all hell breaks loose. He shames his family, his neighborhood, his country. On mainland China, however, the Chinese revolution has focused attention away from competition toward cooperation. Thus Chinese children are not anxious about failing and therefore not shy.

What else did you learn about shyness?

Our research explodes some of the myths. For example, contrary to popular belief, women are not more shy than men. In fact, in the college population it is the other way around. Another myth is that shyness is a stage children pass through. Some people become shy in adulthood, some never get over it. I had a letter from one 89-year-old great-grandmother who said her hope was not to be shy for just one day before she dies. Another myth is that you are born shy. There is no evidence that shyness is an inherited trait. It is learned.

Can shyness be cured?

Yes. Since it is learned, I am very optimistic about changing shyness in people who find it undesirable. It is possible in a short time for people to feel more comfortable in social situations, to get more pleasure out of the human condition.

How is this done?

In the shyness clinic that Meg Marnell and I started at Stanford, we discovered specific exercises that go a long way toward reducing or overcoming shyness. Some people need to learn the nuts and bolts of social interaction. We give them very specific directions on how to start a conversation, how to make eye contact, the importance of being an attentive listener. They need to learn how to accept compliments and how to give them too. Shy people do not stroke others. They have to learn how to stop putting themselves down and to begin to say positive things about themselves to build sagging esteem.

Can you practice not being shy?

Yes, but the shy person must overcome being passive. Television, for instance, makes no demand on us to give anything back. And it is possible for a shy student to get through a good college without ever having personal contact with professors. Yet studies show that the successful people in our society are the most verbal. This means practicing conversation. Finally, people need experience in reading other people right. Shy people are so overconcerned about how others are evaluating them that they often read the signals all wrong. We teach them to be appropriately sensitive socially.

Is it necessary to get professional help to cure shyness?

No. It can be done without therapists or clinics, usually with the help of one other person. Ultimately the most important technique is to have the shy person become really concerned about other people.

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