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.

2 thoughts on “Shyness and reward

  1. Mason

    Lately, I’ve been trying to recall past times I’ve been comfortable to try to figure out the circumstances that made me feel comfortable. (Or, if not entirely comfortable, at least times when I was able to get myself to act in some manner instead of not being able to do it.)
    I would definitely say I have a tendency to accentuate both the small (and perhaps trivial) positive and negative results. I also have a tendency to see negative things that aren’t there, but that’s symptomatic of a wider world view.
    Also, my harping on trivial positive social interactions at times might just be because I’m occasionally hyper.

  2. stephen shepherd

    Hrm. Be wary of any article that says “increased activity in area X means Y.” It’s true, that parts of striatum are involved in reward processing. But it does a lot of other stuff, and a more balanced perspective might be to say that it is involved in processing reward & punishment contingencies. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily mean shy people find social situations more rewarding: perhaps shy people expend more effort trying to cost/benefit analyze each molecular social interaction.

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