Shy Times: A Social Analysis of Shyness and Social Anxiety in America, 1977-2013

Marie La Vina, Fordham University


In 1977, social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo claimed that shyness had become "an insidious personal problem [...] reaching such epidemic proportions as to be justifiably called a social disease" (1977:5). Three years later, social phobia was included in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as an official psychiatric diagnosis. In the next two decades, the lifetime prevalence of the disorder rose from 2.5% to 13.3% of the population, or more than one in every eight Americans (Horwitz and Wakefield 2012:159). This paper considers the medicalization of shyness and the construction of social phobia as a sociohistorical event, arguing that definitions of shyness as disorder entered lay and professional lexicons through the expansion of psychiatric authority in a specific cultural milieu: against the backdrop of a culture of personality, an America intent on self-disclosure and self-improvement, deluged with mass media, competitively individualistic, and adapting to changing labor markets in the face of rising economic insecurity and unprecedented risk. It is a study of the meanings attached to the word shy in contemporary life (how they were altered by the introduction of social anxiety into the sphere of the mental health professions) and the cultural matrix in which definitions of shyness as disorder emerged and gained legitimacy. The first and second chapters consider the proximate and contextual factors involved in the medicalization of shyness, while the third delves into the advice literature marketed toward shy readers in the last three and a half decades. Examining how notions of shyness are informed by broad sociocultural trends, "Shy Times" suggests that some degree of social anxiety may be an understandable response to the complexities of contemporary social life.

Subject Area

Mental health|Sociology

Recommended Citation

La Vina, Marie, "Shy Times: A Social Analysis of Shyness and Social Anxiety in America, 1977-2013" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI1561149.