When Shyness Turns Deadly

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Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui in a yearbook photo

As a personality trait, shyness probably ranks as one of the more benign characteristics that someone can possess, but new research suggests that at least some forms of shyness may have violent, and often deadly, consequences.

Analyzing eight school shootings over the past decade, psychologist Bernardo Carducci and his team at Indiana University found that the young shooters in these incidents shared nearly all of 29 personality and behavior characteristics that Carducci categorizes as cynical shyness. This form, says Carducci, who directs the Shyness Research Institute, differs from normal shyness in that sufferers disconnect with others when their efforts at socialization are rebuffed. "These are people who want to be with others but who are rejected in a very harsh way," he says. While normally shy people would continue to try, and eventually succeed, in connecting with others, cynically shy individuals internalize the rejection and alienate themselves. "As they develop a sense of disconnect, they move away from people, and as they move away from people, that makes it easier for them to hurt them. These people are becoming a cult of one," he says.

Carducci presented his hypothesis at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association on Saturday, and notes that while his study did not include the most recent and deadliest school shooting, at Virginia Tech earlier this year, gunman Seung Hui Cho possessed 77% of the characteristics that Carducci isolated. These include social withdrawal, preoccupation with weapons and violence, anger or violence reflected in his work or journal, and hostility toward classmates and teachers.

Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist practicing in Denver and author of From Conflict to Resolution, notes that Carducci may have identified a subgroup of shy individuals who are especially sensitive emotionally. "Someone who is shy is less likely to open up and have a communication flow with other people," she says. "So that increases the likelihood that any turbulence from a traumatic incident is bottled up and can grow like a mushroom." If their shyness prevents them from sharing their pain with others, particularly close family members, then the feelings of humiliation and shame can get exaggerated. "They have nobody to stand up for them and defend them, and develop a sense that no one is there to protect them and buffer them from the difficult world," she says.

This shyness may be innate in some people, meaning that they are more vulnerable to feeling hurt and ashamed, adds Elaine Aron, a psychologist and research associate at SUNY Stonybrook. "Children with any kind of unusual temperament tend to be ostracized by their peers, and they become humiliated or ashamed," she says. "And when any one of us are ashamed, or backed into a corner, we can do all kinds of things, including acting out violently."

Identifying these individuals, says Carducci and Heitler, is critical so that parents, teachers and mental health professionals can intervene to halt this shyness from progressing into anger and rage against others. Carducci acknowledges that the criteria he has isolated are neither complete nor absolute, but they are a first step toward understanding the students who perpetrate violence against their own schools, and hopefully preventing such events in the future.