Category Archives: Shyness

Cal Career Fair: initial report

The career fair mentioned in the previous post began today with recruiters from business and public service; most of these were somewhat removed from what I was looking for but I dropped in to see if any of the finance people were looking for physicists. Observations:

  • My ability to fend off shyness is highly context-dependent, and my social skills were unable to adapt to the new environment, and deserted me—I feel like I promptly regressed to the stereotypical socially inept science nerd. Unfortunately, the only cure is to keep trying until approaching a recruiter no longer causes me to blush.

  • I debated whether to even bother approaching companies that hadn’t indicated in their listing that they were seeking PhDs. I did, and this turned out to be a good idea, since several of the finance firms were looking for people with my background even if they weren’t necessarily advertising the fact here. Usually in these cases the directive was “apply on the website,” but I was able to gauge who was looking and what their level of interest was.
  • One company had a listing and a table assignment but was not to be found. However, when I returned to my e-mail afterwards, I promptly received a recruiting message from them. This is due either to coincidence or the existence of remote SQUID-based brain scanners, in which case I should find the company that makes those and apply there.
  • The swag today was pretty terrible—almost everybody gave away pens. I also generally forgot to take stuff, since all my mental resources were directed at the suddenly difficult task of assembling words into sentences. Microsoft had some nifty looking keychains with some kind of LCD game on them, but I felt a strange, almost supernatural reluctance to approach their table. (And I’ve only been a Mac user for a couple months!)
  • The tables drawing the least interest from the crowd were the United States Marine Corps, and Philip Morris—apparently Berkeley produces relatively few Nick Naylors. Goldman Sachs got more traffic than these two combined during a period when their table was unmanned, and even the oil companies were doing better.

Tomorrow: Tech companies! Defense contractors! Better swag! More blushing!

Science apparel

Stick figure webcomic xkcd, which was discussed in a recent open thread, is now selling t-shirts. The first one is excellent; I can’t decide if the second is cute or just sad (speaking as someone who sometimes needs to make the clarification written on said shirt).
Since this post is too short, here are some other science-oriented webcomic shirts: Music + Science = Sexy from Questionable Content, and Professor Science from Dinosaur Comics.

Shyness and reward

Tyler Cowen notes an fMRI study of shyness, which found that:

Shy children… showed two to three times more activity in their striatum, which is associated with reward, than outgoing children, the team reports in the 14 June issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. “Up until now, people thought that [shyness] was mostly related to avoidance of social situations,” says co-author and child psychiatrist Monique Ernst. “Here we showed that shy children have increased activity in the reward system of the brain as well.”

It’s not clear what this means, although the PI for the study speculates: “One interpretation is that extremely shy children have an increased sensitivity to many types of stimuli–both frightening and rewarding.” Now, my natural impulse is to wonder whether this is true about me (as an extremely shy person), but it’s not obvious, for the simple reason that I don’t have any direct experience of anyone else’s internal sensitivity to success or failure. On the other hand, I’ve noticed lately a tendency for my mind to inflate the importance of trivial social interactions if they have a sense of success or failure about them. (For example, individual conversations that were particularly comfortable or awkward.) But I think everyone does this to some degree—we all obsess over embarrassing moments even if they were totally inconsequential. (Dave Barry once wrote a column on this.)
Regardless of whether this is really a hallmark of shyness, one thing that I’ve found useful in my efforts to be less shy has been to take a very analytical look at my past interactions and try to put them in the proper perspective. So instead of getting worked up about a particular conversation that went really well or really poorly, I’ll realize that it was basically an unremarkable event either way. The end result (when this works) is that I stop seeing every interaction as the latest major test of my social skills, and this removes some of the attendant anxiety.

The introversion/extroversion interface

Time to revisit the ever-popular topic of introversion. There’s this old Atlantic Monthly article on the subject that was discussed recently by Kevin Drum and Chad Orzel. In general I thought this article tended to overstate matters, and was overly harsh on extroverts (maybe this was intended for comic effect). For example, this paragraph:

Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

The “barking and yipping” bit is just obnoxious, but more importantly, I’ve met plenty of extroverts who understand introversion. Usually they tend to have done some reading on the subject rather than having an intuitive grasp of what it’s like, but they still do understand. On the other hand, it’s true that some extroverts really don’t understand, and when I meet such people they will usually either write me off as aloof and uninteresting, or get offended that I don’t want to talk to them, or regard me as a weird and fascinating specimen in which case I will have to fend off endless questions about why I’m so quiet. So, one shouldn’t do any of these things. But I thought the article went to far in the opposite direction: the author seems to not like to hear people talk at all, and suggests that introverts be left alone:

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.
Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”
Third, don’t say anything else, either.

I read this and thought, “That’s exactly wrong!” Because when I’m in a social situation, and I’m not talking to anyone, it’s really great if some extroverted person comes along and talks to me and gets me involved in the conversation. But I realized this relates back to the distinction between introversion and shyness—regardless of how introverted I may be in general, if I go to a party (for example) it’s because I want to socialize and connect with people, and then it’s only my shyness that’s a barrier. So for introverts who aren’t shy, standing alone lost in thought may signal something different.
In any case, one shouldn’t assume that just because an introvert isn’t talking, he doesn’t want to be talked to. The author of the Atlantic Monthly article doesn’t seem to like extroverts very much at all, but I’m the opposite: I often really enjoy conversations with talkative people, because a conversation where I’m supplying only 10% of the dialogue is a lot easier and more comfortable than one in which I need to supply 50%.
I suspect that if I weren’t shy, I’d be a lot less introverted (although not quite extroverted).

Shyness and serotonin

Via Marginal Revolution, Time magazine reports on some recent research into shyness. Apparently a genetic component has been located:

As part of Battaglia’s study, he collected saliva samples from his 49 subjects and analyzed their DNA, looking for something that might further explain his results. The shy children, he found, had one or two shorter copies of a gene that codes for the flow of the brain chemical serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in anxiety, depression and other mood states. Battaglia’s lab is not the only one to have linked this gene to shyness, and while nobody pretends it’s the entire answer, most researchers believe it at least plays a role. “People who carry the short variant of the gene are, in general, a little more shy and reactive to stress,” says psychiatrist Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal, who just completed a two-year study of timidity and stress.

Something I’ve never been entirely clear on is, what is the relationship between shyness and mood states like depression and anxiety? Maybe this is still an open question, but they seem to be linked in some way. I guess in a sense shyness is a kind of anxiety, but shy behavior has a very different character from an anxiety attack.