It's hard to get much lower-tech than the laboratory of psychologist Sam Putnam at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The equipment here is strictly five-and-dime--soap bubbles, Halloween masks, noisemakers--but the work Putnam is doing is something else entirely. On any given day, the lab bustles with toddlers who come to play with his toys and be observed while they do so. Some of the children rush at the bubbles, delight at the noise toys, squeal with pleasure when a staff member dons a mask. Others stand back, content to observe. Others cry.
Those differences are precisely what Putnam is looking for. What he's studying during his unlikely playdates is that elusive temperamental divide between those of us who thrill to the new and those of us who prefer what we know--those who seek out the unfamiliar and those who retreat into the cozy and safe. It's in that divide, many scientists believe, that the mysteries of shyness may lie.
Few things say "forget I'm here" quite so eloquently as the pose of the shy--the averted gaze, the hunched shoulders, the body pivoted away from the crowd. Shyness is a state that can be painful to watch, worse to experience and, in survival terms at least, awfully hard to explain. In a species as hungry for social interaction as ours, a trait that causes some individuals to shrink from the group ought to have been snuffed out pretty early on. Yet shyness is commonplace. "I think of shyness as one end of the normal range of human temperament," says professor of pediatrics William Gardner of Ohio State University.
But normal for the scientist feels decidedly less so for the painfully shy struggling merely to get by, and that's got a lot of researchers looking into the phenomenon. What determines who's going to be shy and who's not? What can be done to treat the problem? Just as important, is it a problem at all? Are there canny advantages to being socially averse that the extroverts among us never see? With the help of behavioral studies, brain scans and even genetic tests, researchers are at last answering some of those questions, coming to understand what a complex, and in some ways favorable, state shyness can be.
For all the things shyness is, there are a number of things it's not. For one, it's not simple introversion. If you stay home on a Friday night just because you prefer a good book to a loud party, you're not necessarily shy--not unless the prospect of the party makes you so anxious that what you're really doing is avoiding it. "Shyness is a greater than normal tension or uncertainty when we're with strangers," says psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard University. "Shy people are more likely to be introverts, but introverts are not all shy."
Still, even by that definition, there are plenty of shy people to go around. More than 30% of us may qualify as shy, says Kagan, a remarkably high number for a condition many folks don't even admit to. There are a lot of reasons we may be so keyed up. One of them, new research suggests, is that we may simply be confused.