Social Inhibition (Definition + Examples)

We all know a “shy” kid. Maybe you had brothers, sisters, cousins, or neighbors who were always a little shy. Maybe your brother, sister, or friend is worried about how shy their kids are. Shyness has never been a big deal – some kids are shy and some kids aren’t. But what if shyness was a sign that a child was going to develop social inhibition or other mental health conditions in the future? 

These are questions that have recently perked up the ears of psychologists. With anxiety coming to the forefront of many conversations, it’s time we take a look at where it comes from and how we can possibly prevent it in the future. 

What Is Social Inhibition?

Social inhibition, also known as behavioral inhibition, is the tendency to avoid certain behaviors in social situations, including social interactions. Many psychologists also define social inhibition as the tendency to “reduce” your behavior around people versus when you are alone.

Although social inhibition hasn’t been studied thoroughly, some psychologists believe that it could have a strong link to social anxiety disorder. There is still a lot more to learn on this subject, but taking a closer look at being “shy” could give us some important insight into the development of anxiety and other mental conditions.  

Examples of Social Inhibition

Social inhibition may take many forms, including our behavior, appearance, or complete withdrawal from a situation. Regularly avoiding parties, festivals, or big conferences may be seen as social inhibition. Being the person at a party who prefers to sit with the host’s dog instead of introducing yourself to new people may be considered social inhibition. Keeping your arms crossed and head hunched while in a crowd may also be considered a form of social inhibition. 

a happy person alone, but frightened in front of a group of people

You may, for example, speak softer or keep funny jokes to yourself when you are around new people versus when you are in the presence of one very close friend. 

Sometimes, this inhibition is subconscious. You don’t realize that you are actively avoiding a social situation by scheduling yourself too thin at work or making excuses for why you can’t go to a party. Other times, the inhibition is conscious. People with a high level of social inhibition may be very aware that they are avoiding social situations. They might even be aware of the fear that drives social inhibition: the fear of disappointing other people. We all feel the innate desire to be accepted by the people around us. Social inhibition is often a response to that desire and the fear that we won’t fulfill those desires by being our “true selves.” 

Again, there is still research to be done on this subject, and a lot goes into whether your behaviors are driven by phobias, anxiety, or more practical factors. Staying in for the night to avoid spending money may not be a sign of social anxiety, although using this as an excuse every day to avoid talking to people may be a sign of high social inhibition. 

Effects of Social Inhibition

Why do we study social inhibition? For one, it can affect our lives. We all know someone who has missed out on an opportunity or wasn’t able to make friends because of their shyness. We all know someone who has gained a lot of success because they were so outgoing or uninhibited when it came to speaking or networking with people. When we think of entrepreneurs, CEOs, or visionaries, we often picture someone who is not afraid of anything or who can talk to anyone about their big ideas. 

Interestingly enough, social inhibition isn’t just about being shy. People who are regularly socially inhibited don’t just “miss out” or fail to make friends. By avoiding certain situations or interactions, we may be reducing our ability to learn and grow. Take the process of learning a language. A lot goes into learning a language: memorizing the vocabulary, understanding the grammar, and speaking to others. The more practice we get speaking to others in the new language, the faster we will catch our mistakes and improve. Social inhibition prevents people from engaging in this way. Studies show that social inhibition distracts people from completing a task at hand; including, says Spanish psychologists, decision making and complex reasoning. 

Reducing social inhibition doesn’t just give people more opportunities to make friends or network. By reducing this inhibition, a person can engage more with the world around them, allowing them to learn, grow, and problem-solve. 

How to Reduce Social Inhibition 

If someone wants to branch out and release themselves from the fear of social interaction, what can they do? Well, let’s look at the causes of social inhibition. Like many things in psychology, we can’t just point to a person’s disposition or the environment they grew up in. Many things contribute to (or reduce) social inhibition. 

Brain Activity or Personality 

Some studies on social inhibition associate this tendency with innate personality traits. Dependence on others, for example, is commonly linked to social inhibition. The choice to avoid large crowds of people or stick to the people you know at a networking event may be more biological than situational. Researchers have found that over-activation in the cortical social brain network is more common in people with high social inhibition. Does this mean that your brain is telling you to stay home for the night? Maybe. Does this mean by being aware of these factors, you can change your decisions and make conscious to be less inhibited? That’s a possibility, too!

Age

Social inhibitions have been observed and studied throughout all age groups. In studying this phenomenon in children, teens, and adults, the only thing we know for certain is that social inhibition can change and develop over time. This may have to do with biology or the events that transpire and the knowledge that we gain over time. 

Trauma

Biology may be linked to social inhibition, but our biology isn’t always set in stone. Certain situations or events, like trauma, may change brain activity and the way that we naturally function. Traumatic events are linked to the inhibition of expressing our emotions. This can tie into social inhibition. Failing to express ourselves in social situations can lead to a vicious cycle of lowered well-being, increased fears, and higher behavioral inhibition. 

Internalizing Problems 

Studies show that certain behaviors are linked to social inhibition. In Sweden, for example, researchers found a significant link between children with high social inhibition and internalizing problems. Discovering a way to reduce that internalization may naturally give way to a lowered social inhibition. 

Alcohol Consumption or Substance Use 

You might have guessed that alcohol and some controlled substances can reduce social inhibition. In general, these substances lower our inhibitions. We are more likely to “go for it,” whether “it” is talking to someone you don’t know or throwing a glass across the room. The more alcohol that we consume, the less we are going to consider the social implications of our actions. And while some people refer to a drink or two as “liquid courage,” we all know someone who has done something under the influence that they wouldn’t do sober. 

Does this mean that you should drink in order to reduce social inhibition? Not really. The effects of alcohol on the mind and body, especially when consumed in excess, are not always (if ever) worth the moments where you feel less scared to approach someone. People who use alcohol to overcome social inhibition are likely to realize that it is a crutch, not a helpful tool. If you tend to hold back in social interactions, you can use other methods to face your fears. 

Power

One last interesting factor regarding social inhibition is power. When you appear to have more power over a situation, you are likely to have decreased social inhibitions. Power comes in many forms. Wealth, success, or titles can give you the illusion of power. Hosting a party in your home can change the power dynamic between you and your guests slightly. The power someone might have because of their position in society may also affect the way that you see them, see your social dynamic, and determine what behaviors are appropriate or which ones are scarier. If you change your perception about the power you have over yourself or the power another person has over you, you might find yourself less fearful of them or social interaction. 

Is Social Inhibition A Sign of Social Anxiety Disorder? 

woman wondering if she has social anxiety disorder

Social inhibition is not social anxiety disorder (SAD). People with social anxiety disorder are more likely to display high social inhibition, but social inhibition is not the only symptom of social anxiety disorder. As you just learned, power dynamics and other situational factors may influence whether or not you inhibit certain social behaviors. Being nervous or shy in front of Bill Gates or a celebrity does not mean you have social anxiety disorder, for example. 

Psychologists are interested, however, in the link between social inhibition as a child and social anxiety disorder as an adult. If we can pinpoint the behaviors that indicate the likelihood of developing social anxiety disorder, maybe we can offer treatments and interventions sooner and slow the development of this disorder. Again, there is much to learn about how these behaviors, inhibitions, and disorders work!

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.