The Biology of Shyness and Adapting to Threat

  • Kelley Gunther
  • Elizabeth Youatt
  • Koraly Pérez-EdgarEmail author


Shyness is a commonly observed state or trait that can incorporate a wide array of socially oriented behaviors. This broad term of shyness can be more precisely grouped into behavioral subtypes, each of which may be associated with distinct neurological and physiological markers and long-term outcomes. Shy individuals typically show hypersensitivity and hypervigilance to threat, particularly perceived social threat. This attention to threat includes external tangible threats, but also internal and more abstract threats that may manifest as worry or preoccupation with one’s own well-being. Although generally perceived as negative, some subtypes of shyness, with specific biological profiles, may prove adaptive. Biological markers for shyness subtypes include attentional mechanisms supporting biased attention to emotion, differences in the neural underpinnings of approach and withdrawal behaviors, and the evolutionary advantage of neoteny. The degree to which these mechanisms impact social interaction helps shape how a shy individual can adaptively, or maladaptively, navigate their social world, influencing the nature of socioemotional development and the likelihood of psychopathology. Environmental context may also interact with these biological markers to differentially predict pathways of both risk and resilience by placing varying pressures on individuals and pulling for different forms of adaptation. A multimethod approach can define subtypes of shyness to better understand the form and consequences of shyness while also considering the context in which these differences in biological mechanisms may operate. In this chapter, we detail the biological substrates of behaviors associated with shyness subtypes and also examine their adaptability as a function of environmental context.


Adaptive shyness Attention to threat Biological markers Approach and avoidance Neoteny 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kelley Gunther
    • 1
  • Elizabeth Youatt
    • 1
  • Koraly Pérez-Edgar
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyThe Pennsylvania State UniversityState CollegeUSA

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