Shyness Trajectories Predict Mental Health in Adulthood

It’s a common assumption that shy children are more likely to have mental health problems as adults, so a group of researchers from McMaster University decided to put that idea to the test. After all, scientists are in the business of questioning common assumptions.

What the researchers found was that the picture is a little more nuanced. Whether or not people are shy as children seems to matter less than whether people’s shyness increases or decreases over the first several decades of their lives.

If you’re wondering how the researchers figured this out, I’m glad you asked!

The psychologists ran a longitudinal study that tracked participants’ behavior over the course of four decades – from childhood into their mid thirties.

Once all the data was in, the researchers identified three distinct trajectories of shyness.

Most common was what researchers called the “low-stable” trajectory – people who were decidedly not shy and who stayed that way across childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. About fifty-nine perfect of the study participants fell into this group.

The second most common group, accounting for about 23 percent of participants, was the group whose shyness increased noticeably between adolescence and adulthood. The final 18 percent of participants experienced the opposite trajectory – their shyness went down between childhood and adulthood.

Most important for predicting people’s mental health in adulthood wasn’t whether they were shy as children but which trajectory they followed. The people with an increasing shyness trajectory turned out to be at higher risk for mood disorders, social anxiety and substance use. They were also especially sensitive to images of angry faces.

On the other hand, the group who were shy as children but became less shy over their first few decades of life didn’t appear to be at higher risk for any of these conditions.

The researchers pointed out a couple takeaways from these results. One is that childhood shyness and adulthood shyness may arise from different factors. Another, as the researchers put it in the paper, is that “not all shy children grow up to have psychiatric and emotional problems, nor do they all continue to be shy.”

Image: Flickr/Mashael Al-Mehmadi