Hereditary shyness

I had an interesting conversation with Clementine yesterday, between buckets of beer at German Park. I’d been encouraging her to go over and play with the nieces of a friend, who were about her age, and sitting at the base of a tree, building a lunch room for some tiny rubber hamster type things that they’d brought with them. They seemed like cool kids, and they’d asked Clementine earlier if she wanted to join them. I could tell by the way that she was watching them, that she wanted to, but, when asked, she said that she didn’t. So, after a half hour or so, I asked her to walk over with me, while I asked them a few questions about what they were working on. At the time, they’d been fashioning plates out of acorn tops, and filling them with pebbles meant to signify food, and I was curious to know whether or not the hamsters had to pay for their food with tickets, like at German Park. Clementine went over with me, but stood a little behind me. I didn’t force her to interact with them, but we talked about it afterward. I told her that they seemed like good, friendly kids, and that I thought that she’d enjoy playing with them, but that I understood if she didn’t want to. I told her that I understood because I was exactly the same as a kid. I was, and still am, incredibly uncomfortable meeting new people. I suppose, if you wanted to be kind about it, you could say that I’m shy. “Shy” doesn’t quite do it justice, though. It’s more like I’m painfully anxious to the point of folding up into a sweaty, quivering heap. I’m not sure what I think will go wrong, but the thought that new people may not like me, or, worse yet, that may say something less than positive about me, is more than I can take.

I have a very clear memory of sitting in the car with my mom, outside the house of a guy I went to high school with. It was probably the summer before my junior year. I believe we’d just dropped off my sister, who was a freshman, to hang out with his younger sister, and my mom was encouraging me to go in and say hello to the guy. I was absolutely mortified by the prospect, even though I had several classes with the guy and liked him well enough. I’m not sure what motivated me to leave the car this time, but I did. (My mom had been pushing me for at least a decade to make a friend, but I always fought back. I guess I’d just finally reached my breaking point.) As it turns out, it wasn’t so bad. He was watching a Monty Python video with some other guys, and they asked me to stick around, which I did for the next several years… Anyway, I tried to convey all of this to Clementine, as we walked away from these other smart, adorable eurasian girls playing with their hamsters. I told her that she’d likely inherited it from me, to which she responded that, no, she’d “learned” it from me. Regardless, it’s weird to see her starting out down that same path that I’d gone down, not wanting her to miss out on the same kinds of opportunities that I did.

I will say, though, that I don’t think it’s an altogether bad thing to be a bit apprehensive. I think, given the choice, I’d rather have a kid that watches from the periphery for a while before jumping in, than one who leaps in blindly, doing whatever those around her are doing. But, I guess, it’s a matter of degree. You also don’t want a kid who’s unwilling to leave the house. Fortunately, I don’t think we’re at that point with Clementine. While she’s apprehensive, she generally comes around in the end. Unfortunately, though, we never reached that point at German Park.

Anyway, I doubt that I would have written anything about his right now, if not for the fact that, by some odd coincidence, the New York Times would publish a story today on shyness as an evolutionary tactic. Here’s a clip:

…We even find “introverts” in the animal kingdom, where 15 percent to 20 percent of many species are watchful, slow-to-warm-up types who stick to the sidelines (sometimes called “sitters”) while the other 80 percent are “rovers” who sally forth without paying much attention to their surroundings. Sitters and rovers favor different survival strategies, which could be summed up as the sitter’s “Look before you leap” versus the rover’s inclination to “Just do it!” Each strategy reaps different rewards.

In an illustrative experiment, David Sloan Wilson, a Binghamton evolutionary biologist, dropped metal traps into a pond of pumpkinseed sunfish. The “rover” fish couldn’t help but investigate — and were immediately caught. But the “sitter” fish stayed back, making it impossible for Professor Wilson to capture them. Had Professor Wilson’s traps posed a real threat, only the sitters would have survived. But had the sitters taken Zoloft and become more like bold rovers, the entire family of pumpkinseed sunfish would have been wiped out. “Anxiety” about the trap saved the fishes’ lives.

Next, Professor Wilson used fishing nets to catch both types of fish; when he carried them back to his lab, he noted that the rovers quickly acclimated to their new environment and started eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this situation, the rovers were the likely survivors. “There is no single best … [animal] personality,” Professor Wilson concludes in his book, “Evolution for Everyone,” “but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.”

The same might be said of humans, 15 percent to 20 percent of whom are also born with sitter-like temperaments that predispose them to shyness and introversion. (The overall incidence of shyness and introversion is higher — 40 percent of the population for shyness, according to the psychology professor Jonathan Cheek, and 50 percent for introversion. Conversely, some born sitters never become shy or introverted at all.)…

Relaxed and exploratory, the rovers have fun, make friends and will take risks, both rewarding and dangerous ones, as they grow. According to Daniel Nettle, a Newcastle University evolutionary psychologist, extroverts are more likely than introverts to be hospitalized as a result of an injury, have affairs (men) and change relationships (women). One study of bus drivers even found that accidents are more likely to occur when extroverts are at the wheel.

In contrast, sitter children are careful and astute, and tend to learn by observing instead of by acting. They notice scary things more than other children do, but they also notice more things in general. Studies dating all the way back to the 1960’s by the psychologists Jerome Kagan and Ellen Siegelman found that cautious, solitary children playing matching games spent more time considering all the alternatives than impulsive children did, actually using more eye movements to make decisions. Recent studies by a group of scientists at Stony Brook University and at Chinese universities using functional M.R.I. technology echoed this research, finding that adults with sitter-like temperaments looked longer at pairs of photos with subtle differences and showed more activity in brain regions that make associations between the photos and other stored information in the brain…

Sitters’ temperaments also confer more subtle advantages. Anxiety, it seems, can serve an important social purpose; for example, it plays a key role in the development of some children’s consciences. When caregivers rebuke them for acting up, they become anxious, and since anxiety is unpleasant, they tend to develop pro-social behaviors. Shy children are often easier to socialize and more conscientious, according to the developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska. By 6 they’re less likely than their peers to cheat or break rules, even when they think they can’t be caught, according to one study. By 7 they’re more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits such as empathy…

Anyway, I thought that some of you with “sitters” might enjoy that.

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  1. Sid Shover
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    I married a sitter and we’re raising a sitter. Both are incredibly, as said, in tune with their surroundings including the subtle and nuanced needs of others. The thing I think the sunfish study misses is the value sitters have in listening to and empathizing with the rovers. “You almost choked on a pumpkin seed? I’m so sorry.”

    It’s not easy for them. It’s draining. But it’s beautiful to watch. I’m not quite fully sitter or rover. (Maybe I’m a floater?) But, as one who’s partial to sitters, I did enjoy this careful and astute post.

  2. Posted June 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    I think you need both kinds to make the world go round. I just like sitters better, because, you know, I am one. I think there’s probably a better word for us than sitters, though. Maybe if I were a rover, I’d throw a few ideas out.

  3. LaidOffTeacherPatti
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m a rover married to a sitter. It’s interesting, to say the least. Once we got into a huge fight (well more than once :)) and I said something to the effect that if I die, he’d probably marry someone just like him for wife #2. Jeff said no, he wouldn’t, because why would he want to be married to someone just like him? I make us go out and DO things but I also should be better about understanding his desire to just sit.

    So I agree that you definitely need both…if I was married to another “rover”, I think I’d die of exhaustion or else we would talk each other to death.

  4. Kristin
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I like that she says she learned it from you. It was a choice, and she chose watcher.

  5. Mr. X
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I have bad associations with rovers.

  6. wetdolphinmissile
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    one of my kids was simply born reserved ( I prefer this to shy). She had stanger anxiety shortly after birth, and could not tolerate anyone but immediate family holding her. She is a thriving adult now…sports helped her get out there. After all one cannot sit forever and watch…

  7. Edward
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Did this come to mind for anyone else?

    “I learned it from you, Dad.”

  8. Anonymatt
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    “Hereditary shyness” would have been a better title.

  9. Gene
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Clementine is so, so lovely. Saja and I were watching just the situation you described and the push and pull in her mind was plain to see. You did good, forcing is no good, and i think if she wanted to play hamster bad enough, she would have bit. I’m a sitter/introvert/social anxiety-er, thankfully, it can be managed well enough with effort. It’s an interesting control when you have to “push” yourself from within. Some mantras (thanks to the Sagmeister book you all gave me) that help to stem my shyness: trying to look good limits my life, worrying solves nothing, having guts always works out for me. I will also be curious about your number two – i’ve seen many firstborns be sitters, then the second one busts out of the gates and can’t be held back.

  10. Eel
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I would have thought that your revelation that she was in fact “just like you” might have scared her straight.

    Just one more thing.

    Speaking of Scared Straight, my thoughts are with Peter Falk and his family today.

  11. Eel
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Also, as a sitter, I’ve found alcohol to have transformative powers. I can go from sitter to rover in under five minutes with the proper drink.

  12. Anonymatt
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    You’re welcome.

  13. Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Maybe she just didn’t want to play with rubber hamsters. That’s not high on my list either.

  14. Dick Gear
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Huh, I really would’ve expected a child ‘learning’ from you to be more interested in gerbils.

  15. dan from austin
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Nice post, Mark. Jojo and I talk about her shyness sometimes. She told me that she “hates Mondays” (Not not like Garfield) because going to daycare for the first time in the week after the weekend at home makes her anxious. Ultimately, she warms up and likes it, but that initial trepidation and anxiety is really tough for her.

  16. Sitter Dude
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Boy, do Rovers wear me out. They steal energy. Sitters kind of regenerate by themselves when they are alone. Rovers just take and take. I was thinking the other day that if I ever got married again, it would be to a fellow sitter. For eleven years now, I have wished my wife would just be able to just for a few fucking minutes, sit down and read a book with me. No dice. If she can’t be talking constantly, she just leaves the room.
    I also have a brother who is a rover. We get along fine in small doses. But for example he said a few days ago that he has so so so many great friends. Really? What if one of them went missing? Would my brother even notice with all the others to take the lost friend’s place? Doubtful.
    Rovers can’t even go to the bathroom alone. Too dependent for me.
    But I would disagree about the socialization part. I have a friend who is a sitter. I wish I had a dollar for every time she told somebody to “kiss her fat black ass”. Or maybe she is not a sitter. Just mean as hell.
    I would like to meet Clementine someday. She seems like a good kid.
    I just learned from your site’s search function you have lots of posts about RoboCop, but not even one about Big Maceo and his burial place. Unrelated, irrelevant, but interesting.
    Maybe somebody should study the incidence of Sitters who marry Sitters, Sitters who marry Rovers, Rovers who marry Sitters, Rovers who marry Rovers.

  17. Ted
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    You just need to get her a violent video game.

    Don’t worry, the Supreme Court says it’s OK.

  18. Anonymatt
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been a Sitter, but I aspire to be a Silvers:

  19. Elf
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know about Silvers, but this guy sure knows how to chat up the chicks.

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