I used to think of my shyness and social anxiety as a disorder—something wrong with me. As if I got unlucky and inherited a genetic defect. Then, I heard that social anxiety is not something you’re born with—it’s developed. Which didn’t make sense either because I’ve been shy and socially anxious my entire life. It wasn’t until I learned about evolutionary psychology that everything started to make sense. I was born with the tendency to be shy around strangers and worry about what other people think of me, but that wasn’t a genetic mistake. Shyness and social anxiety were actually an evolutionary advantage.
First off, let’s define shyness and social anxiety. They are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction between the two terms, at least evolutionarily speaking. Shyness is a fear and avoidance of strangers, while social anxiety is a fear of being rejected by others. Many people have both, as social anxiety often leads to shyness, but there are certainly people who feel social anxiety but are not necessarily shy. Then there’s introversion, which often overlaps with shyness and social anxiety, though it simply means you tend to be more solitary because you gain energy and recharge by being alone.
Human beings have been around for 200,000 years, but civilization didn’t start until around 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture. Meaning for 95% of our species’ existence, humans lived in small tribes as hunter gatherers. Evolution works really slow, however. So our brains haven’t had enough time to adjust to living in civilized society. We’re still wired to live as we did 200,000 years ago.
Back then, we lived in small close-knit tribes of a couple hundred people. We traveled, hunted, ate, and slept with the same people every day for our entire lives. We all knew each other intimately, like family, so we wouldn’t have felt any shyness or social anxiety toward one another. If we were to encounter any new people outside of our tribe, it made perfect sense to fear and avoid them. They could be dangerous and potentially kill us and our tribe. Therefore, shyness was beneficial. It could save us and our loved ones’ lives. Then again, the other tribes could be friendly and provide knowledge or resources that could help the tribe survive. So there was also an evolutionary advantage to have un-shy people go out and search for new people who could join the tribe and help make it stronger.
The problem is you don’t know beforehand whether strangers will be good or bad for your tribe. Which is why it made sense evolutionarily for a tribe to have both shy introverts and bold extroverts. In some cases, the shy person will be right and avoid being killed by dangerous rival tribes, while in other cases, the bold person will have the advantage by meeting new friendly people to strengthen their tribe. If an entire tribe was bold, they could be killed by foreigners, either through direct violence or infectious disease. But if an entire tribe was shy, they’d never find new people to join the tribe, so their numbers would dwindle and the gene pool wouldn’t diversify, putting them at greater risk of dying out. This doesn’t mean shy types can’t meet new people—they’re just more cautious and slower in doing so.
The beauty of evolution is that it ensures a variety of traits in individuals to help strengthen the overall survival of the species. If shyness wasn’t advantageous, evolution wouldn’t have naturally selected for it, and only the bold and fearless would have survived. Degrees of shyness can vary from person to person, but humans evolved to have a roughly equal percentage of both introverts and extroverts. Opposing personality types complement each other, forming a yin/yang relationship. This is evident in other traits such as liberal/conservative. Every tribe (or society) needs a balance of both kinds of people to function properly.
Social anxiety, on the other hand, has a completely different evolutionary advantage than introversion and shyness. In prehistoric times, humans needed to socialize and form a tribe in order to survive. No human would ever be able to make it in the wild alone with no easy food sources and an abundance of predators. Being rejected by your tribe was essentially a death sentence. Therefore, social anxiety was a beneficial trait. You wouldn’t want to say or do something that would cause your fellow tribe members to banish you.
Today, our brains still equate social anxiety with death just as our tribal ancestors did. But now, the repercussions of social rejection are not as dire. Society has become so massive, especially with the internet, that if we are rejected by one person or group, we can easily find another. Or, if you prefer solitude, you can easily survive on your own. You don’t need to intimately know the clerk at the supermarket who provides your food, or your doctor, or mechanic, or plumber, etc. Today, you can get everything you need to survive from complete strangers.
In tribal times, it made sense to keep your opinions to yourself and say as little as possible. Just go about your business and be nice to everyone in your tribe. Even today, that’s not such a bad way to live. You won’t hurt anyone by keeping quiet, but you might limit your relationship and career opportunities. We don’t have to worry about holding back our thoughts, opinions, and ideas anymore because today, if we get rejected, it won’t mean exile and death. We can just move on and find new friends. We wouldn’t want to be friends with people who reject us based on our ideas and opinions, anyway. So in a way, rejection is good. It helps us weed out the crowd to find our true tribe.
Now, you may ask: If shyness and social anxiety is so evolutionarily advantageous, why is it causing me so many problems today? Well, society has changed. We no longer live in tribes. Modern suburbia is essentially the complete opposite of the hunter gatherer tribes we evolved to live in. We are now sequestered in private houses, preventing us from developing close-knit tribal connections with people outside of our own family or maybe a few close friends or co-workers. Unless we’re living, sleeping, eating, and working with people every day and know them intimately, our brains will regard them as a stranger, not a member of our tribe. So we retain our evolutionary fear and shyness toward them. Thousands of years ago, that was a major advantage that could save our lives. But today, a “stranger” you encounter at school or work or at the store isn’t likely to be a threat to your life.
So is social anxiety a disorder?
No. It’s society that’s disordered.
One solution would be to go back to the types of close-knit tribes we evolved to live in, by forming a commune or similar type of community. But that’s unrealistic for most people. For better or worse, we’re stuck in modern civilized society. That doesn’t mean we’re forced to suffer from shyness and social anxiety, however. We can learn to cope.
First, realize what social anxiety and shyness actually are: evolutionary adaptations that helped save our ancient ancestors’ lives. Then, recognize when those traits are helping us and when they are not. Even today, shyness and social anxiety are beneficial at times. If we went around saying everything that popped into our heads without considering the feelings of others, we would make a lot of enemies. And some strangers on the street actually are threats to our safety, so we should fear them.
The key, as always, is to find the right balance. That’s easier said than done, but the tools and methods I’ve mentioned before can help: meditation, mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure. I think the best way to deal with social anxiety in modern society is to recognize it at an early age and teach children practices to cope with their nature. Let them know that there’s nothing wrong with them for being shy or socially anxious, but at the same time, help them figure out how to overcome those fears when needed.
- PubMed: Evolution and social anxiety. The role of attraction, social competition, and social hierarchies.
- The New York Times: Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- Wait But Why: Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think
- Wait But Why: Meet Your Ancestors (All of Them)