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Shyness and Communal vs. Individualistic Orientations: Sensitivity to Emotion Lynne Henderson, Keiko Kurita, and Philip PowerPoint Presentation
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Neutral Extreme

Neutral Extreme

Neutral Extreme

Shyness and Communal vs. Individualistic Orientations: Sensitivity to Emotion

Lynne Henderson, Keiko Kurita, and Philip Zimbardo

Department of Psychology, Stanford University

  • Abstract
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion




This was an exploratory study with a small sample. Level of shyness was unknown in the Asian American sample and ethnicity was not controlled for in the non-shy and shy sample. Also, the self-reported Asian American ethnic group includes a diversity of Asian cultures.

Future research should address the question of whether Asian Americans and shy individuals are slower to identify or label social threat emotions like disgust or anger because of a different, equally adaptive value system rather than to pathological anxiety and social avoidance. Our current research is investigating whether manipulating self-relevance will affect sensitivity to the facial expressions.

The shy and those from Asian cultures are higher in communal values, have more interdependent self-construals, and are higher in sensitivity. We therefore hypothesized that they would be more sensitive than the non-shy to facial expressions of emotion. Contrary to our hypotheses, the shy and Asian Americans were less, not more, sensitive to social threat and high intensity emotion. Otherwise, they did not differ from the non-shy. Interpersonal motives and cultural values may play an important role in the process.

  • Participants
  • 20 male and 33 female students ages 16 to 22 (M = 18.6, SD = 1.3) in undergraduate psychology classes
  • Shy: 5 males, 13 females; Asian-Americans: 9 males, 11 females; Non-shy: 6 males, 9 females
  • Stimuli
  • Ekman’s six basic emotions were rated: anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness and surprise (Ekman,1984). There were nine frames for each emotion from the least to most intense.
  • Background
  • Procedure
  • Participants viewed still frames of emotions randomly sampled from morphed transition clips from neutral (frame 1) to extreme (frame 9) on a computer monitor (Schiano et al, 2000).
  • Upon presentation of each stimulus, they indicated which emotion was present and rated the intensity of the emotion.
  • Sensitivity was operationally defined as the accurate detection of the emotion, and higher intensity ratings, particularly early in the sequence of the development of an emotion from neutral to extreme.

Implications for psychotherapy

• It is important to attend to interpersonal motives and values when treating shy clients.

• Reticence may be part of interpersonal motives and values that are as adaptive as those of the non-shy, albeit different. If these motives and values are devalued in a possibly “disturbed” society, therapists need to take care not to collude in a negative or destructive stereotype.

  • Shy people and people who are from Asian cultures are sensitive to other people’s emotions and needs; the Japanese are also more likely to say they are shy (Zimbardo, 1977; Kato & Markus, 1994).
  • Evolutionary theory and Henderson’s social fitness model suggest that these characteristics are adaptive (Henderson, 2003; Henderson & Zimbardo, 2001).
  • Communal attributes
  • Shy individuals are communal, wishing to share inclusion and acceptance (Horowitz et al, 2006).
  • Eastern cultures are also more communal than individualistic Western cultures (Kitayama, Markus, & Matsumoto, 1995).
  • Shyness is associated with communal interpersonal motives and values that put others’ needs first (r = .53), avoid anger (r = .39) and emphasize connection to others (r = .22) (CSIV; Locke, 2000; Bortnik, Henderson, & Zimbardo, 2002).
  • Shyness is not associated with valuing forcefulness, having the upper hand, seeking revenge, or having an impact (Bortnik, Henderson, & Zimbardo, 2002).
  • Self-construals
  • Shy people, as well as people from Asian cultures, are higher in interdependent self-construals, and the shy are lower in individualistic self-construals than is the norm in Western cultures (Bortnik, Henderson, and Zimbardo, 2002; Kato & Markus, 1994).
  • Sensitivity
  • Shy individuals are higher in Sensory Processing Sensitivity (Aron & Aron, 1997; Bortnik, Henderson, & Zimbardo, 2002).
  • People higher in sensitivity are more sensitive to their surroundings, aesthetics, the outdoors, and the emotions of those around them (Aron & Aron, 1997).
  • The shy and Asians are higher in self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment, that imply concern for others views of the self (Kitayama, Markus, & Matsumoto, 1995).
  • Shy participants and Asian Americans rated the happy facial expressions as less intense, particularly in the later frames, a trend that approached significance F (2, 46) = 2.53 p < .09.
  • Non-shy participants gave the highest intensity ratings to anger, significantly differing from the Asian American participants, F (2, 46) = 5.39, p < .01.
  • Shy participants did not significantly differ from either group, falling in the middle. There were no interactions with the sex of participant or position of frame in the sequence of neutral to extreme anger.

Summary of results

Asian American participants were significantly less sensitive to anger and disgust than the non-shy. Shy participants were comparable to Asian Americans in sensitivity to disgust, differing from the non-shy, and did not differ from either group in sensitivity to anger.

Shy participants and Asian Americans rated happy as less intense overall than the non-shy.

Shy participants and Asian Americans did not differ from the non-shy in sensitivity to fear and surprise.

Females were more sensitive to sadness.

Shy participants were more comparable to Asian Americans overall in sensitivity to facial affect.

  • References

Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2), 345-368.

Bortnik, K., Henderson, L., & Zimbardo, P. (2002, May 11, 2002). The Shy Q., a measure of chronic shyness: Associations with interpersonal motives and interpersonal values. Paper presented at the Society for Interpersonal Theory and Research, Toronto, Canada.

Ekman, P. (1984). Expression and the nature of emotion. In K. R. Scherer & P. Ekman (Eds.), Approaches to emotion. Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum.

Henderson, L. (2003, February). Social fitness: Facilitating self- expression in the socially inhibited. Society for Interpersonal Research and Theory (SITAR) Newsletter, 3, 2-3.

Henderson, L., & Zimbardo, P. (2001). Shyness as a clinical condition: The Stanford model. In R. Crozier & L. Alden (Eds.), The International Handbook of Social Anxiety: Concepts, Research and Interventions Relating to the Self and Shyness. New York: Wiley.

Horowitz, L., Wilson, K., Turan, B., Zolotsev, P., Constantino, M., & Henderson, L. (2006). How interpersonal motives help clarify the meaning of an interpersonal behavior: A revised circumplex model. Personality and social psychology review, 10, 67-86.

Kitayama, S., Markus, H., & Matsumoto, H. (1995). Culture, self, and emotion: A cultural perspective on "self-conscious" emotions. In J. P. Tangney & K. W. Fisher (Eds.), Self- conscious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride (pp. 439-464). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Kato, K., & Markus, H. R. (1994, June, June 29-July 3, 1994). Interdependent/Independent self construals: Cultural norms, personal orientation, and induction by feedback. Paper presented at the Poster presented at the 6th conference of the American Psychological Society, Washington, D. C.

Locke, K. D. (2000). Circumplex scales of interpersonal values: Reliability, validity, and applicability to interpersonal problems and personality disorders. Journal of Personality Assessment, 75, 249-267.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Smith, R. E. (2004). Introduction to Personality (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Schiano, D. J., Ehrlich, S. M., Rahardja, K., & Sheridan, K. (2000). Measuring and modeling facial affect. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments & Computers, 32, 505-514.

Tsai, J. L., Knutson, B., & Fung, H. (2006). Cultural variation in affect valuation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 288-307.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1977). Shyness: what it is, what to do about it. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.


  • Discussion

Contrary to our hypothesis, we found that the shy and Asian Americans, while similar, were less likely to detect disgust, consistently assigning lower intensity ratings, and Asian Americans detected less anger.

Given the evidence that Asian Americans value and focus on calm or pleasant emotions while Caucasians value and focus on high-intensity emotions, cultural values may explain the lower sensitivity to anger, disgust, and happiness. (Tsai, Knutson, & Fung, 2006). We can conjecture that shy individuals also value pleasant emotions more than high-intensity emotions.

Because shy individuals and those from Asian cultures value harmony and are higher in interdependent self-construals, they may be less willing to acknowledge social threat emotions until they become quite obvious. They may sense their emergence but resist labeling them until they consider contextual cues in the environment. We think this may be due to a different, equally adaptive value system rather than to psychopathological anxiety, particularly in a normative sample. If so, this pattern may be analogous to Mischel’s prevention focused vs. promotion focused personality style (Mischel, Shoda, & Smith, 2004).

Are Asian Americans and the shy slower to identify and label social threat emotions like disgust simply because of a more reflective, intellectual style wherein they are reluctant to make impulsive judgments? Alternatively, although more difficult to imagine, could both groups have more perceptual difficulty identifying some high intensity emotions, independent of interpersonal motives, values, self-construals, and sensory processing sensitivity?

Another possibility is that, because the emotion expressions were context free they were not seen as self-relevant, or as signaling implications for interpersonal dynamics, where greater sensitivity might be revealed.

Example of “Angry” frame #6 from neutral to extreme

  • Shy and Asian American participants rated disgust as less intense than the non-shy in the early (neutral, mild) frames (less sensitivity) and as more intense in the final (extreme) frames (more sensitivity), an interaction that approached significance, F (2, 47) = 2.58 p < .09.


  • There were no differences in ratings of fear, but Asian American participants gave less intense surprise ratings to fear, perhaps suggesting more accurate sensitivity to facial expressions of fear F (2, 46) = 3.05 p < .06.


Given that shy individuals and Asian Americans have more communal values, interdependent self-construals, and sensitivity to the concerns of others, we hypothesized that they would be more likely to detect facial expressions of fleeting emotions earlier in the development of an emotion from neutral to intense.We were particularly interested in anger and disgust emotions because they signify social threat, and in happiness because Caucasians tend to value and focus on high-intensity emotions while Asian Americans value and focus on more calm or pleasant emotions (Tsai, Knutson, & Fung, 2006).


  • There were no differences in ratings of sadness among the non-shy, shy, and Asian American participants.
  • However, females gave more intense sadness ratings to the facial expressions of sadness, F (2, 46) = 4.53 p < .05.

Example of “Disgust” frame #8 from neutral to extreme

Statistical Design

A 2 (gender) x 2 (shyness) x 9 (frames) mixed-model design with repeated measures on frame was used to analyze the data. A 2 x 2 x 9 multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted on gender, shy and frame (from 1 to 9) with frame as the repeated measure.


  • Groups did not differ in intensity ratings of surprise to facial expressions of surprise and there were no interactions.
  • Contact

Lynne Henderson