Differentiating Social Phobia from Shyness

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Objectives: This study aimed to clarify the boundaries of social phobia and the nature of shyness. Despite the similarities between social phobia and shyness, the vast majority of shy persons do not meet diagnostic criteria for social phobia. Conversely, most persons with social phobia, specifically the generalized subtype, are shy. This study sought to identify factors that delineate generalized social phobia from shyness.

Methods: Of the 78 participants, 25 were shy with social phobia, 26 were shy without social phobia, and 27 were not shy. The groups were compared on self-reported symptomatology and indicators of functioning. Social skills were assessed via unstructured social interactions and an impromptu speech task during which heart rate and skin conductance were monitored. Performance and anxiety were rated by participants and independent observers.

Results: All symptoms were more prevalent among the shy with social phobia than the shy without social phobia. Almost 40% of the shy without social phobia did not endorse social fears per se, even though they reported high levels of shyness. Those with social phobia reported higher levels of impairment and lower levels of quality of life compared to the shy without social phobia. Both the shy and social phobia groups reported similar levels of anticipatory anxiety prior to the social tasks; however, the social phobia group reported relatively elevated levels of anxiety during the social tasks. Those with social phobia demonstrated social skills deficits across tasks, whereas the shy did so only in the unstructured social tasks. Both groups underestimated their effectiveness during the speech relative to independent observers. None of the three groups differed on the physiological measures.

Conclusions: The findings indicated that shyness is a broader construct than social phobia. Some subsets of the shy group appeared to be more qualitatively similar to the social phobia group than others. Those with social phobia appeared to experience more anxiety and exhibit more social skills deficits during the social interactions than the shy without social phobia, which may account for the higher levels of impairment they reported. The results are discussed in the context of current theoretical models of social phobia.