Shedding Light on Shyness

At 15 years old, Bernie Carducci was shy.

Most social situations, no matter how casual, would result in sweaty palms and butterflies in his stomach. Conversations were difficult. Approaching a girl for a date was completely out of the question.

Though many may be able to relate to these awkward experiences of youth, for some the problem of serious shyness persists into adulthood -- leading to difficulties in getting a job, acquiring friends or getting a date.

Rather than staying in his shell, Carducci, in his own words, "made shyness a personal and professional interest." He went on to write books on shyness and help numerous individuals with their social problems.

Today, he is the director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeastern, an institute he founded in 1997.

"My goal is to create not only an understanding but also an appreciation for shyness," he said. "The ultimate goal is to become successfully shy."

But an institute for shyness?

While some may question the necessity of such an organization, some of Carducci's research delves into situations in which shyness can pose real dangers to society as a whole.

When Shyness Turns Violent

At the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association earlier this month in San Francisco, Carducci presented research showing that a certain type of shyness -- termed "cynical shyness" is a characteristic common to many of those who commit high school shootings.

"The cynically shy represent a small, select group of shy individuals who make the effort to move towards others but are rejected by them," Carducci states in the article.

"For such individuals, this rejection can manifest itself in the development of a sense of social disconnection and, more importantly, feelings of anger, which can result in a loss of empathy for and the dehumanization of others."

In the study, eight male high school shooters, including the two students responsible for the attack at Columbine, were analyzed based on personal and social factors noted in newspapers and the FBI document titled "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective."

The researchers examined 10 different characteristics of cynical shyness and found that the school shooters fit this profile.

Not all researchers felt that the findings of the study could necessarily be used yet to weed potential school shooters out from the crowd. Joseph Gasper, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, said he is "cautious about checklist approaches" such as those used in this study.

He adds that there may be a handful of people that will fit this profile, but only a rare few commit school shootings. There is concern that students "may get stigmatized" based on this data, he said.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago and executive director of Ceasefire Chicago, a group which works to eliminate gang violence, said, "What is missing from the data is how prevalent these characteristics are among teenagers."

But the research could be a first step toward identifying cynically shy individuals before such acts of violence become reality.

The Spectrum of Shyness

Of course, there are many types of shyness, most of which pose more danger to the lives of individuals than those of the rest of society.

Carducci points out that there exists a spectrum of shy behaviors.

At one end there is situational shyness, or difficulty speaking with a famous individual or someone you admire. Carducci claims that 95 percent of the general population experiences this at some point in their life.

"I think the people that say they have never experienced this are not telling the truth," he said.

Then there is traditional shyness -- the stereotypical aversion to social situations that many people generally think of when they hear the term.

Among those that are traditionally shy is a group of individuals who use alcohol to help them become more social, or "liquid extroversion," said Carducci. This subtype which is referred to as the "shy alcoholic" may be a red flag for more serious problems with alcohol in the future.

"Contrary to popular belief these individuals actually have more in common with extroverts than introverts," Carducci said. "They want to be with others and they do lots of things to help them deal with the shyness."

Carducci cautions, however, that shyness should not be confused with social anxiety disorder, or SAD, which is classified as a medical disorder.

"They are trying to move [shyness] into the category of social anxiety disorder, and this is not where it belongs," he said.

The main difference in the treatment setting, he said, is that people who are shy don't need medications to help them.

"These people want to talk, they are just looking for someone to listen," Carducci said.

While treatment varies from person to person, Carducci said serious shyness can often be mitigated by drills that emulate real-world conversations and situations -- a "dry rehearsal" of sorts for those who have trouble interacting with others.

And he said that this approach has proven successful for some serious shyness sufferers.

One such success story occurred following a seminar on shyness and dating. A male attendee achieved something that he had previously thought to be impossible: getting a woman's phone number.

"I saw this young man going through all the steps in the conversation," Carducci said. "And then at the end, success."