Shy Personality Types

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Shy personality dimension

Individuals with certain personality types typically behave in ways that society labels as shy. In some cases there is just a lack of social skills or a general disinterest in social engagement. In other cases either social anxiety or a predisposition to social anxiety may be present.

Psychologists slice and dice personality in various ways depending on what they wish to study. For our purposes we can place shyness within a spectrum of personality types, ordered from top to bottom in terms of decreasing levels of sentient awareness, self control, and innate mental stability:

•  Schizoid
•  Introverted
•  Extroverted
•  Psychopathic
•  Autistic

The schizoid and the introverted are the shy personality types. The extroverted, psychopathic, ASPD (anti-social personality disorder) and austic personality types are decidedly not.

Sentient awareness

Sentient awareness is the ability to perceive what is happening in your environment, both in the external world and internally within the mind. For example, when driving along an unfamiliar route you will be aware of the traffic, the road junctions, and the prominent features of the landscape. But while driving along a familiar route you may discover that you have arrived at your destination without being able to recall the journey – you’ve been driving on autopilot. In the former case you have both sentient and non-sentient awareness, but in the latter case only non-sentient awareness is present.

Animals are quite capable of surviving in the environments in which they live, but they do so using only non-sentient awareness. People with different personality types differ in their levels of sentient awareness. Schizoids and introverts can certainly be classified as sentient beings and they exhibit a high level of sentient awareness, whereas extroverts and those below them in the shy dimension are—how shall we put it delicately—closer to the animal kingdom!


Self-control is exercised when you become aware that as a result of some external or internal event you’ve developed a desire to carry out some action, and in response to that awareness you exercise restraint thereby preventing that action from being carried out—someone has just insulted you but instead of lashing out either physically or verbally you decide to respond in a more measured manner.

Self-control is contingent on sentient awareness. If you are not aware of a desire to act, then you have no option other than to act. However, sentient awareness is not enough to ensure the exercise of self control—perhaps you’ve had instances of “I know I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to do it anyway”. To exercise self-control it’s necessary to rapidly generate a countermanding desire that is opposite and at least as strong as the desire that is precipitating you into action. The source of this countermanding desire is a clear understanding that what you are tempted to do is not in your long term interests. Exercising self-control is not easy, nor pleasant, as you experience the frustration of two desires pulling in opposite directions.

Schizoids and introverts exhibit high levels of self control, whereas extroverts and those lower down in the shy dimension exhibit considerably less.

Innate mental stability

Innate mental stability is a measure of the extent to which strong desires are generated in response to external and internal events—how tightly you are coupled to your external and internal environments. If you find that you readily develop strong desires in reaction to events then your innate mental stability is low.

Note that having strong innate mental stability means that the desires generated by events are weak and that the effort involved in exercising self-control is correspondingly much less.

Note that it’s possible to have strong innate mental stability without having any sentient awareness. With high innate mental stability you will not react to events, even if those events are not ushered into consciousness.

Animals could be said to have low innate mental stability in that their needs for food or their needs to escape predators may be urgent, and necessitate the arousal of strong desires that lead to prompt action. However, human beings have advanced planning capabilities and so the need to react strongly to events is considerably diminished—acting following reflection is much more likely to lead to surival and long term happiness than a peremptory response.

Schizoids have high levels of innate mental stability. The other personality types have less, though introverts by exercising high levels of self-control can often achieve the same ends as schizoids, though with much greater effort.

Innate mental stability correlates positively with cortical arousal. Schizoids and introverts have innately higher levels of cortical arousal than the other personality types. High levels of cortical arousal lead to satisfaction and contentment. If you are not contented then events will generate strong desires, either to increase your level of satisfaction or to preserve what little you may already have. The low cortical arousal of extroverts and others lower down in the shy dimension is the reason why they exhibit such low levels of innate mental stability.

Mirror neurons and the theory of mind

The way in which you respond to another person, to animals, or to objects that behave in a human-like manner is strongly influenced by your mirror neuron system. The neurons in this system fire both when you carry out an action and also when you see someone else carrying out the same action. How you feel when you carry out an action depends in part on the firing of this set of neurons. As a result you can also gain some insight into how another person feels when they carry out the same action—such as when making a sad or a happy facial gesture, for example.

The mirror neuron system is responsible for the strong tendency for human beings to attribute agency to other human beings, animals, and even inanimate objects. At an early age we develop a “theory of mind”, a belief that other people have minds like our own, but minds that are also capable of holding different beliefs than we do. This belief in agency is very useful in predicting what is likely to happen next, and so proves very useful for survival.

The mirror neuron system can trigger a desire that subsequently leads to action without any cognitive understanding of what is happening. The result is non-sentient awareness, followed by action based upon that awareness. Most human actions belong in this category.

However, the mirror neuron system can also independently trigger a cognitive understanding of what is happening, resulting in sentient awareness and providing an opportunity to exercise self-control. This will usually occur in response to events that have a high degree of significance to the individual.

In the case of someone with high innate mental stability, desires are not readily triggered in response to events. Awareness of the events may or may not reach consciousness.

The autistic

There is a very wide spectrum of autistic types, and the type that we are considering here represents an extreme. An individual with this extreme form of autism will exhibit aggression and tantrums, will display very poor communication skills, and will engage in compulsive, ritualistic and repetitive behaviours.

Damage to the mirror neuron system (and other neural structures) during development and early childhood leads to a failure to develop a theory of mind, and at times even a sense of self. As a result, events, both external and internal, occur in a chaotic fashion. The future is totally unpredictable. The world doesn’t make sense. To make matters worse the extreme autistic is unusually sensitive to stimuli, so that not only does the world make no sense, it is also totally overwhelming.

It is hardly surprising that in these circumstances violent reactions to events that are unproblematic for others occur so frequently, that communication skills are necessarily poor when the concept of communication itself is largely absent, and that there is a strong focus on simple, repetitive, low stimulus activities—activities that can be understood and that can help to bring some order and predictability to the world.

For the extreme autistic, sentient awareness is not really possible since there are no mental categories into which events can be placed. Self-control is not possible because there is no knowledge that there is anything to control or how that control could be exercised. Innate mental stability is almost entirely absent, as the mind is continuously flooded with intense stimuli that automatically elicit uncontrolled and inappropriate reactions.

The extrovert, psychopath, and ASPD

The extrovert, the psychopath, and the ASPD are closely related. These types exhibit a poor level of self-control, so that they are likely to make rash decisions that are not in their own best interests. Of the three, the ASPD has the poorest level of impulse control, followed by the psychopath, and then the extrovert. This poor level of self-control leads to criminal behaviour in the case of the ASPD and, usually, in the case of the psychopath.

These personality types exhibit low levels of sentient awareness—they have a reduced awareness of what is happening around them. They also exhibit a low level of innate mental stability, so their reactions to events are often extreme—someone knocks over an ASPD’s drink in a bar and receives in return a broken glass embedded in his neck. When events do enter into consciousness the level of self-control exercised is poor—the immediate gratification of desires is the norm.

These types readily display superficial feelings, but they lack the depth and subtlety of feeling experienced by the introvert. What they cannot experience themselves they cannot understand in other people so their ability to empathize is lessened: curtailed in the case of the extrovert and the ASPD, and entirely absent in the case of the psychopath.

These personality types usually have an exaggerated opinion of themselves, but whereas the extrovert’s narcissism is controlled to some extent by society’s negative feedback, and the ASPD’s by negative feedback within his own criminal clique, the psychopath’s sense of self-worth is totally unaffected by anyone’s disapproval of his behaviour.

Some may think it unfair to place the extrovert in the same category as the psychopath and the ASPD. However, observation reveals that there is a basic similarity in behaviour, the only difference being that the extrovert usually keeps his behaviour within the law: the extrovert may come out of a nightclub rolling drunk, shout at the top of his voice, and make rude gestures at the passers by; the ASPD may do the same, but he will also kick in car doors as the mood takes him and will relieve himself through someone’s letterbox when nature calls. The dividing line between the two is that between behaviour which is a nuisance and that which is criminal. However, the underlying personality traits are essentially the same.

Note that Hollywood’s portrayal of the psychopath has little to do with how real psychopaths behave, and is nearer, in some respects, to the schizoid personality type. For example, Hannibal Lecter in the film “Silence of the Lambs” has a profile closer to a covert schizoid than a psychopath—with, of course, a dash of cannibalism tossed in to satisfy the requirements of the horror genre.

For a comparison of the defining characteristics of the schizoid, the psychopath, and those with anti-social personality disorder (ASPD) see:

The introvert

The introvert is characterized by a high level of sentient awareness, a high level of self-control, but only a moderate level of innate mental stability (though one that is substantially higher than that found in extroverts and the personality types lower down in the shy dimenssion). There is a depth and subtlety to feeling, but emotions are wide ranging and intensely felt.

This characterization is particularly true of the shy introvert who suffers from social anxiety. Managing social anxiety requires an intense vigilance, so sentient awareness is very high, with even the smallest details of external events being brought into consciousness.

Self-control is excellent in one respect, as even the strongest of emotions can usually be suppressed in order to maintain the invisibility desired in social settings. However, self-control is poor in another respect: while the shy introvert will often reflect upon life and determine what course of action is best to take in the future, in the moment he or she will often be carried along by events—self control is exercised to prevent action, rather than to initiate action and then channel it in the desired direction.

The schizoid

Desires and emotions serve as a source of both pleasure and pain. Human beings strive to “accentuate the positive, and eliminate the negative”, usually with indifferent success. Introverts and others at a lower level in the shy dimension do not have a sufficiently high level of innate mental stability to avoid being manipulated by desires and emotions as they arise (though psychopaths avoid being manipulated by other people’s emotions, they completely fail to avoid being manipulated by their own).

The characteristic of the pure schizoid subtypes is a very high level of innate mental stability. They are largely unaffected by events, whether external or internal. It is this absence of emotion and their lack of reactivity to events that leads to them being labelled as shy. However, they do not suffer from social anxiety.

Self-control is not necessary for the pure schizoid because there is not much to control. When desires and emotions are not readily generated, there is little need for self-control, but when required schizoids have it in abundance.

Sentient awareness is very high among pure schizoids. Some display a very focused awareness, not dissimilar to the autistic. Others display an all-encompassing awareness in which every little detail is brought into mind. Some can switch between both at will. Managing desires and emotions requires a considerable amount of mental effort and reduces the capacity of the mind to be aware of what’s happening, or at least to bring a preconscious awareness into consciousness. The shy introvert often possesses this fine-grained awareness when he or she is alone or when acting as an observer of the social scene. But in the case of the pure schizoid this fine-grained awareness is always present.

The reason that people associate with other people is due to the desires and emotions that social interactions generate. Extroverts and those at a lower level in the shy hierarchy are compelled to interact with others due to their low level of innate mental stability and low cortical arousal. Introverts can, in part, break out of this cycle of dependency and are able to spend some time alone to reflect upon life and their reactions to it. For the pure schizoid the need to associate with other people and the social dependency that this creates is no longer present—pure schizoids, unique amongst the other personality types, truly understand the meaning of the word “independence”.