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Section 14
Three Components of Adolescent and Adult Shyness

Question 14 | Test | Table of Contents

In spite of some debates about the precise definition of shyness as a psychological construct (Cheek & Watson, 1989; Harris, 1984b; Leary, 1986), there is considerable agreement among clinical, psychometric, experimental, and observational studies concerning the typical reactions of shy adolescents and adults during social interactions: global feelings of tension, specific physiological symptoms, painful self-consciousness, worry about being evaluated negatively by others, awkwardness, inhibition, and reticence (Briggs, Cheek, & Jones, 1986).

We believe that the best way to organize this list of typical shyness symptoms is to employ the standard tripartite division of experience into three components: affect, cognition, and observable behavior. This trichotomy of feeling, thinking and acting has a long history in psychology (Breckler, 1984). Recently, Buss (1984) has advocated the formal elaboration of a three-component model of shyness. Jones, Briggs, and Smith (1986), however, conducted a factor analysis of 88 shyness items from five personality scales and concluded that “There are persuasive reasons to suspect that a single dimension underlies the construct of shyness” (p. 638). We do not question their factor analysis; it is quite consistent with our own factor analytic work that indicates only one major factor in shyness items (Cheek & Buss, 1981, p. 332; Cheek & Melchior, 1985). Rather, it is the research described later, employing a variety of methods other than factor analysis, that has persuaded us to continue to hold our previously stated preference for the three-component rather than the unidimensional conceptualization of shyness (Cheek & Briggs, 1990; Cheek & Melchior, 1990).

The first category of shyness symptoms includes global feelings of emotional arousal and specific physiological complaints, such as upset stomach, pounding heart, sweating, or blushing. These reactions define the somatic anxiety component of shyness. Several surveys of high school and college students indicate that from 40 to 60 percent of shy students experience difficulties with multiple symptoms in this category (Cheek & Melchior, 1985; Fatis, 1983; Ishiyama, 1984). In a study that employed content codings of free descriptions by shy women, 38 percent of them volunteered at least one somatic anxiety symptom when describing why they consider themselves shy (Cheek & Watson, 1989). The somatic component is clearly an important aspect of shyness, but these results also help to clarify why it has been relatively easy for researchers to identify a subtype of socially-anxious individuals who are not troubled by somatic arousal symptoms (e.g., McEwan & Devins, 1983; Turner & Beidel, 1985).

Acute public self-consciousness, self-deprecating thoughts, and worries about being evaluated negatively by others constitute the second, the cognitive, component of shyness. The argument for distinguishing the somatic and cognitive components of shyness is based on the general distinction between somatic anxiety and psychic anxiety (Buss, 1962; Schalling, 1975), which continues to receive empirical support (Deffenbacher & Hazaleus, 1985; Fox & Houston, 1983). Between 60 and 90 percent of shy students identified various cognitive symptoms as part of their shyness (Cheek & Melchior, 1985; Fatis, 1983; Ishiyama, 1984). However, only 44 percent of the shy adults in the Cheek and Watson (1989) study described specific cognitive symptoms. Although this figure is unusually low (cf. Turner & Beidel, 1985), even among men and women clinically diagnosed as socially phobic, there is a meaningful amount of variability in public self-consciousness and other cognitive symptoms of anxiety (Hope & Heimberg, 1988).

The third component concerns the social competence of shy people. The relative absence of normally expected social responsiveness defines the quietness and withdrawal typical of shy people (Buss, 1984). Nonverbal aspects of the behavioral component of shyness include awkward body language and gaze aversion. About two-thirds of the shy respondents in the studies described previously reported behavioral symptoms of shyness. Similarly, the results of several laboratory experiments indicate that most, but not all, shy people show observable deficits in social skills (e.g., Cheek & Buss, 1981; Curran, Wallander, & Fischetti, 1980; Halford & Foddy, 1982; Paulhus & Morgan, 1997; Schroeder & Ketrow, 1997).

All three components of shyness are important, but none of them is a universal aspect of the experience of shy people. In order to investigate the degree of relationship among the three components, we wrote a short paragraph describing each component of shyness (see table 11.3) and asked two groups of college students to rate on a 5-point scale how frequently they experience each aspect of shyness (Cheek & Melchior, 1985; Melchior & Cheek, 1987). The intercorrelations among the somatic, cognitive, and behavioral components ranged from .23 to .48, with an average of .30 for men (n = 266) and .39 for women (n = 313). The results from this rating method suggest more meaningful discrimination among the components of shyness than do the factor analyses of inventory items described earlier (e.g., Jones, Briggs, & Smith, 1986; see also, Leary, Atherton, Hill, & Hur, 1986). Moreover, in the codings of self-descriptions by shy women, 43 percent of them gave responses from only one shyness component category, 37 percent reported symptoms from two categories, and only 12 percent mentioned symptoms of all three components; the remaining 8 percent defined their shyness exclusively in terms of its consequences (e.g., being alone, not getting a job, etc.; Cheek & Watson, 1989).

Evidence that supports the three-component model suggests that shyness as a global or nomothetic trait should be conceptualized as a personality syndrome that involves varying degrees of these three types of reactions (Cheek & Melchior, 1990). But do the three components converge toward defining such a global psychological construct? To find out, we correlated the self-ratings on each component with scores on a recently revised and expanded version of the Cheek and Buss (1981) scale for assessing global shyness. This 20-item scale has an alpha coefficient of .91, 45-day test-retest reliability of .91, a .69 correlation with aggregated ratings of shyness made by family members and close friends, and a correlation of .96 with the original scale (Cheek & Melchior, 1985; Melchior & Cheek, 1990). The self-ratings of the somatic, cognitive, and behavioral components all correlated between .40 and .68 with the global shyness scale for each gender in both of our samples (average r = .50, N – 579; Melchior & Cheek, 1987).

The research reviewed in this section validates Buss’s (1984) theoretical argument that it is reasonable to infer shyness when symptoms of at least one of the three components are experienced as a problem in a social context, as well as his contention that, “It makes little sense to suggest that any one of the components represents shyness to the exclusion of the other two” (p. 40). From the perspective of the three-component syndrome model, dispositional shyness is defined as the tendency to feel tense, worried, or awkward during social interactions, especially with unfamiliar people (Cheek & Briggs, 1990). Although the focus of this definition is on reactions that occur during face-to-face encounters, it should be noted that feelings of shyness often are experienced when anticipating or imagining social interactions (Buss, 1980; Leary, 1986). It also should be clear that discomfort or inhibition of social behavior due to fatigue, illness, moodiness, or unusual circumstances, such as the threat of physical harm, are excluded from the definition of shyness (Buss, 1980; Jones, Briggs, & Smith, 1986).

Regardless of their relative positions in experiencing the somatic, cognitive, and behavioral components of shyness, shy people have one obvious thing in common: They think of themselves as being shy. Rather than being a trivial observation, this may be a crucial insight for understanding the psychology of shyness. Shy people seem to have broad commonalities at the metacognitive level of psychological functioning (see table 11.4). Metacognition is defined as higher-order cognitive processing that involves awareness of one’s current psychological state or overt behavior (Flavell, 1979). The distinctive self-concept processes of shy people suggest that maladaptive metacognition is the unifying theme in the experience of shyness during adulthood (Cheek & Melchior, 1990).

Viewed at this higher level of metacognitive functioning, shyness may be conceptualized as the tendency to become anxiously self-preoccupied about social interactions (Crozier, 1979, 1982). As Hartman (1986) put it, shy people become “preoccupied with metacognition: thoughts about their physiological arousal, ongoing performance, and other’s perceptions of them as socially incompetent, inappropriately nervous, or psychologically inadequate” (p. 269). Because this tendency represents only one specific aspect of metacognition, Cheek and Melchior (1990) referred to the shy person’s metacognitive processing of self-relevant social cognitions as meta-self-consciousness (cf. Dissanayake, 1988).

The pervasiveness of the self-concept processes summarized in table 11.4 suggests that the cognitive component is the predominant aspect of adult shyness. That is, shy people’s cognitions regarding their somatic anxiety symptoms and degree of social skill may be more consequential than their objectively assessed levels of tension or awkwardness (Cheek & Melchior, 1990). The metacognitive model of shyness implies that, in addition to help for their specific shyness symptoms, therapy for shy adults should include cognitive approaches that address self-concept disturbances and anxious self-preoccupation (Alden & Cappe, 1986).

Table 11.3 Questionnaire Paragraphs for the Three Components of Shyness

INSTRUCTIONS: Experiences of shyness can be classified into three distinct categories: concerned with physiological reactions, observable behaviors, and thoughts and worries. Please read the detailed descriptions of each below, and answer the following questions based on these descriptions

Physiological reactions
This category of shyness could also be called “physical shyness.” Physical feelings such as “butterflies in the stomach,” heart pounding, blushing, increased pulse rate, and dry mouth are all examples of physiological reactions. General physical tenseness and uneasiness is also a good way to classify these reactions.

1. Physiological symptoms are an aspect of my shyness:
1 2 3 4 5
1= Never, 5 = Always

Observable behaviors
This category of shyness is concerned with actions that might indicate to others that you are feeling shy. For example, having trouble speaking, being unable to make eye contact, or simply not interacting with others (at a party, for instance) are all observable behaviors that may suggest shyness.

2. Observable behaviors are an aspect of my shyness:
1 2 3 4 5
1= Never, 5 = Always

Thoughts and Worries:
This category includes such things as thinking about the situation that is making you feel shy (i.e., how terrible it is, that you want to leave), or being concerned with what others may be thinking about you and the impression that you are making, feeling insecure, feeling very self-conscious or distracted. This category encompasses a wide range of experiences, but they all deal with thoughts and worries, as opposed to physical feelings or behaviors.

3. Thoughts and worries are an aspect of my shyness:
1 2 3 4 5
1= Never, 5 = Always

(Adapted from Cheek & Melchior 1985)

Table 11.4 Summary of Shy People’s Cognitive and Metacognitive Tendencies Before, During and After Confronting Shyness-Eliciting Situations.

Unlike those who are not shy, dispositionally shy people tend to:

1. Perceive that a social interaction will be explicityly evaluative.
2. Expect that their behavior will be inadequate and that they will be evaluated negatively.
3. Hold “irrational beliefs” about how good their social performance should be and how much approval they should get from others.
4. Think about “who does this situation want me to be?” rather than “how can I be me in this situation?”
5. Adopt a strategy of trying to get along rather than trying to get ahead.
6. Become anxiously self-preoccupied and not pay enough attention to others.
7. Judge themselves more negatively than others judge them.
8. Blame themselves for social failures and attribute successes to external factors.
9. Accept negative feedback and resist or reject positive feedback.
10. Remember negative self-relevant information and experiences.

From Cheek and Melchior (1990). Copyright 1990 by Plenum Press. Reprinted by permission.
(Adapted from Schmidt, Louis A., Extreme Fear, Shyness, and Social Phobia, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.).

A Case Study of the Suicide of a Gifted Female Adolescent: Implications
for Prediction and Prevention

- Hyatt, Laurie. A Case Study of the Suicide of a Gifted Female Adolescent: Implications for Prediction and Prevention. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 2018, Vol. 33, No. 4, p. 514-535.

Personal Reflection Exercise #3
The preceding section contained three components of adolescent and adult shyness. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section of the Manual in your practice.

What are the three componets of adolesent and adult shyness? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 15
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