Study: Shy Kids Know the Answer—They Just Won't Say It Out Loud


This is a good moment to be an introvert. A host of books and articles have been published in recent years extolling the virtues of being reserved, and defending inhibited personalities from the longstanding cultural belief that being outgoing and gregarious is the key to success. 

A new study from researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Connecticut is the latest good news for quieter people. Researchers have long found that socially inhibited kids appear to have weaker language skills than their more outgoing peers. This new study complicates that picture slightly. After examining 408 same-sex twin pairs at the ages of 14, 20, and 24 months, the researchers found that inhibited kids didn't actually know less—they were simply less eager to express their knowledge out loud.

The researchers call this the "I know it but won't say it" model. They assessed two types of language in their subjects: "expressive" (or spoken) and "receptive" (or understood). They judged the children's expressive language by asking them to imitate certain sounds and words (like /ai/ and "mama"), and by asking them to answer questions out loud. They measured the children's receptive language by asking them to follow instructions—for example, "Give me the cup and ball." They found that a child's expressive language skill varied significantly based on how inhibited he or she was. Receptive language skill, however, did not differ based on inhibition level.

"The results suggest that the association between behavioral inhibition and language development is likely due to reticence than language delays/deficits," the researchers wrote. 

"Inhibited behaviors like shyness don't hamper language acquisition overall but instead relate specifically to how toddlers express themselves through words," they said.

Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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