BALTIMORE — When Harvard professor Jerome Kagan first stumbled on data suggesting an innate tendency toward shyness, he didn't want to believe it.
Other researchers had been recording the developments and changes in the lives of a group of people for 30 years, following them from very early childhood on. "My team evaluated them as adults," Kagan, a psychologist, related during a visit to the College of Notre Dame here last month. And then they compared the findings.
Some of the shy adults, they discovered, had been shy toddlers.
But he couldn't propose a theory based on that one indication that shyness shows up very early in life. That was in 1962, and the second suggestion of innate shyness did not emerge for another 10 years.
In the early 1970s, Kagan's group was studying children in day care, comparing them with children who were at home with their mothers all day.
Whether they were in day care or not, some very little children were "bubbly, effervescent, smiley types" and others "timid, cautious, emotionally restrained, wary," he says. "This is the definition of shyness: In a strange place they become very quiet and they cling to the caretaker. They remain very apprehensive. They do not cry and scream."
For the past several years, Kagan has been studying babies and young children in the Boston area, making videotapes of them at play, noting their behavior in unfamiliar rooms and with unfamiliar playmates. And these studies have confirmed the earlier finding.
"In the first 6 months, all babies will go to everybody," he says. "From 7 to 11 months, there's a universal fear of strangers. Then, in the second year, usually in the months before the second birthday, the children I'm talking about emerge."
It is not a large group. He believes that 10% of children are basically shy and 10% are basically bubbly, and the rest range throughout a spectrum between the two extremes.
And even before the shyness shows, these children have problems that are more clearly of biological origin, he says.
"These are the kind of babies who have colic, who wake up a lot at night, who are hard to soothe when they are distressed, who have respiratory allergies, especially infantile asthma, which tends to get better as they get older," he says. All those things can be traced to the functioning of the limbic system in the brain, which governs emotion and motivation.
So is shyness hereditary? Inborn and immutable?
Kagan does not go that far. All he will say is that the shy group seems to be operating under the influence of "a biological contribution, a little push in that direction."
Some shy kids overcome it, or at least they appear to. Their parents invite other children to come to their homes to play, they go to preschools where teachers encourage gentle interactions, and they begin to shed their social hesitation. In their teens, Kagan has found, about half of them transform themselves into sociable adolescents.
On the other hand, some of the smiley, outwardly active children have had too many environmental hard knocks, and turn into shy youngsters who then grow up to be shy adults.
In our society, Kagan says, shyness is not necessarily bad--especially for academic achievers.
"These children don't like to be in a gang of kids, so they stay home and read," he said. "They have more time for homework, and they do well at school. They get A's, their parents praise them, they become valedictorians and pick an intellectual job."
They become writers, scientists, accountants, librarians; they work in places where they interact with the same people all the time. They have close friends, good marriages, stable relationships, professional success. Actors often claim their shyness drove them to performance, where they hide beneath the personalities of their characters.
Shyness can be painful. Shy kids who don't do well in school add scholastic failure to social failure. Shy teens have a harder time with dating than others do. Shy grown-ups tend to avoid situations where they will be faced with a lot of unfamiliar people.
In fact, they talk themselves out of social participation, says Tracey Manning, associate professor of psychology at the College of Notre Dame and a consultant on human-relations skills.
"They tell themselves how awful it will be," she said. "They think, 'What if no one talks to me? What if someone comes up and wants to talk to me? What if the person finds me boring?' They opt out; they back off from large parties. Or they scare themselves and trigger the fight-or-flight response. The heart starts pumping faster. The throat gets dry. The palms get sweaty. The digestive system goes haywire. They become preoccupied with what's going on in their own bodies."
And they look so preoccupied, so aloof and unapproachable, that other people don't approach.
"People have enough concerns of their own," Manning said. "The shy person looks like a snob, and other people don't want to get rejected either."