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Some Bullies Are Just Shy

By Mason Spirit contributor on November 1, 2010

When you think of people suffering from social anxiety, you probably characterize them as shy, inhibitive, and submissive; however, new research from Mason psychologists Todd Kashdan and Patrick McKnight suggests that a subset of socially anxious people act out in aggressive, risky ways—and that their behavior patterns are often misunderstood.

In their new study, “The Darker Side of Social Anxiety: When Aggressive Impulsivity Prevails over Shy Inhibition,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Kashdan and McKnight found evidence that a subset of adults diagnosed with social anxiety disorder were prone to such behaviors as violence, substance abuse, unprotected sex, and other risk-prone actions. These actions caused positive experiences in the short term yet detracted from their quality of life in the long term.

“We often miss the underlying problems of people around us. Parents and teachers might think their kid is a bully, acts out, and has a behavior problem because they have a conduct disorder or antisocial tendencies,” says Kashdan. “However, sometimes when we dive into the motive for their actions, we find that they show extreme social anxiety and extreme fear of being judged. If social anxiety was the reason for their behavior, this would suggest an entirely different intervention.”

The researchers suggest that further studies of this subset can help psychologists better understand and treat the behaviors. “Recent laboratory experiments suggest that people can be trained to enhance their self-control capacities and thus better inhibit impulsive urges and regulate emotions and attention,” says McKnight.

—Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05

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