A simple intervention proved to be very powerful for altering the extent to which shy women were able to face their most feared shyness-arousing situation — being alone with a handsome man– and act as if they were not at all shy.
In this research studying shyness, the shy women faced noise bombardment with a partner from their school and a handsome stranger, all of whom were seated side by side in a sound chamber while the noise increased in frequency until it was so high it was not detectable. (It was actually turned off so that they were sitting in silence.) Each pair of the participants and the male confederate of the researchers then waited 5 minutes while the experimenter pretended to readjust the recording equipment. He followed a prepared script of not prodding nor acting disinterested, but instead created an atmosphere that allowed his partner to talk if she chose. Of course he had no idea to which of the three conditions any of his partners had been assigned.
The data were recordings of what was said during that time-out period, heart rate, and final self-reports of all the participants. As expected, the not-shy participants talked a lot to their handsome partner during the time-out period (27 idea units), but so did the shy women in the noise experimental condition (26 idea units) — there was no difference between them in verbal fluency, nor in how often they changed the topic of the conversation to make it more interesting. Both were significantly more verbally sociable than the control group of shy people in a control condition (18 idea units).
What Does it Mean for Shyness?
By breaking an existing correlation between arousal, source, and label, this research modified long-standing extreme shyness by setting it aside so that a group of shy women were more verbally fluent, sociable enough not to be perceived as shy, and were less aroused when interacting with their usually feared shyness trigger — being alone with a handsome man.
This was an artificial relationship setup for an experiment, so how does this relate to a real-world experience?
Shy people can take away the fact that if they are less focused on the situation itself — being with someone they view as attractive — and instead put the situation aside and simply focus on the shared experience with the other person, they will be more comfortable and more like themselves. Shy people tend to view such situations as awkward and uncomfortable and focus almost exclusively on those feelings, leaving little room for their normal selves to appear. By distracting oneself to find the common, shared experience (in the case of the experiment, being in an experiment that apparently had gone awry), shy women found a way to around their shyness. The setting, although artificially created for the experiment, could just as easily be any place or situation where two people suddenly find themselves together and sharing something in common — the situation itself!
Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Every person’s feelings have a front door and a side-door to which they may be entered.” This experiment shows how the shy persons’ usual front door social anxieties can be altered by showing them how to use a side door. It also should make shy people aware of how they can change their own behavior by learning how to break the chain of thoughts and reactions they typically make when they label something a shyness-eliciting situation, and instead re-label it as “exciting”, “challenging”, or arousing because of the surround sound.