The study looked at children, half of who were described as high in social reticence (shyness) and half described as low. This was based on measures obtained over a 5-year period (between ages 2 and 7). At age 11, children participated in an fMRI study that included a virtual school task. Children created an avatar and personal profile, and were introduced as new students in a virtual school. The children also learned about their fellow students, so for many they knew ahead of time to expect friendly or mean interactions from them. However, some were unpredictable; the children didn't know what kind of interactions they would have with these students. Children were given response options:
To establish an interactive context that modeled how participants might react to real-world experiences, we asked them to respond to positive or negative social evaluation using a button box (5 s). When the row of six response options appeared at the bottom of the screen, participants used the left and right buttons to navigate to their preferred response and a third button to make their selection. Response options were positive (“You’re nice,” “That’s nice”), negative (“That’s mean,” “You’re mean”), sarcastic (“Thanks!!!”), or avoidant (⦸). The selected option then appeared on the screen for purported peers to see or was omitted in the case of avoidant responses (2 s).Shy children experienced more distress than non-shy children. You might expect that they experienced distress when receiving negative comments. In actuality, they experienced it when receiving it from unpredictable peers. In fact, they experienced distress in anticipation of any interaction with an unpredictable peer.
Knowing something negative is going to happen is much less distressing than when you have no idea what to expect.