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.