Interview with Brian G. Gilmartin, Ph.D.

For this edition of the Interpersonal Science blog, we are pleased to interview Dr. Brian G. Gilmartin, Professor of Sociology at Montana State University-Northern. In 1987, he published Shyness and Love: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment, which was the first comprehensive scientific investigation of dating and relationships initiation problems (for which he coined the term “love-shyness”). In writing the book, Dr. Gilmartin presented the existing sociological, psychological, and biological literature, as well as the results of his survey of hundreds of men who struggle to form relationships with women. His analysis included recommendations for interventions aimed at improving interpersonal functioning. Gilmartin’s book has been embraced by many as an honest and compassionate description of their difficulties.

IS: Dr. Gilmartin, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for us. First of all, what do you think about the reception Shyness and Love has received?

BG: When I was first looking for a publisher back in 1985, I was somewhat amazed that literary agents and publishers were both skeptical about the idea of a book on any form of shyness selling well. This is despite the fact that Phillip Zimbardo’s 1977 book [Shyness: What it is, What to do About it] on the subject actually did rather well.

So I had to settle at that time for University Press of America. It turned out that it and the much shorter The Shy Man Syndrome, did much better business in Japan than it did here in the United States. Over 30,000 copies were sold there. And as a result, I was offered a consultancy position over there – which I have very much enjoyed over the past 15 years. I have especially enjoyed the free trips to Japan!

To the best of my knowledge, my work has not been published in any of the European countries.

Another issue is the fact that even in 1985, some 93 percent of all literary agents in New York (and elsewhere) were women. Some of these women were “put off” by the fact that LOVE-SHYNESS dealt only with males – even though I tried to make the point clear that love-shyness is almost exclusively a male problem.

IS: The two decades since the book’ publication have seen a great deal of change; what do you think are the most important factor(s) affecting love-shy men in the modern world?

BG: One of the most important developments on the love-shyness front is the increasing degree of consensus that at least 40 percent (two out of five) of the most severely love-shy males have ASPERGER’S SYNDROME. This, as you know, is high functioning autism. The diagnostic category was first introduced back in 1944, by Austrian psychologist Hans Asperger. Unfortunately, Asperger’s important work did not come to the attention of the English-speaking world until rather recently – not until 1982 in Great Britain, and not until 1990, here in the United States.

Asperger’s Syndrome can be most accurately diagnosed using neuroimaging strategies. However, you might want to check the basic behavioral manifestations of Asperger’s, which are listed in the DSM-IV-R. Some 11 out of every 12 cases of Asperger’s are male. And a key symptom is that of severe shyness in informal, unstructured situations. Asperger’s boys typically had no playmates while growing up, had been bullied, and normally played alone while pursuing somewhat unusual (for children) and adult interests.

I think the “link up” of severe love-shyness with Asperger’s Syndrome, may be good news in disguise – because it may open up a range of preventative learning experiences and therapeutic strategies for love-shys, that otherwise would not become available to them. The earlier in life this problem can be diagnosed, the better the overall prognosis. The brain is highly malleable (see work on neuroplasticity), and early training in interpersonal skills can and does make a big difference.

IS: One change impacting the landscape of dating has been the development of dating websites where people can meet one another. How do you see this playing out for men who struggle to initiate relationships?

BG: I think that the enormous improvement in the social acceptability of “internet dating” sites can (and has) helped a great many love-shy men. Today, fully 20 percent of all American marriages eventuated from “first meetings” through the Internet or through some sort of “computer dating”.

Computer technology has helped out a great deal in this regard. But it has done nothing to deal with the physical attractiveness bugaboo. We still need to find the genes that control for the programming of physical (and especially FACIAL) prettiness/attractiveness. For many men, it is impossible to “fall in love with” someone who is not perceived as having a pretty face. In this regard, the face is of much greater importance than the rest of the body.

I think that in the future we may be able to develop a technology that would give all eligible young men and women a BAR CODE, similar to that which is found on many supermarket products. This bar code would contain a great deal of DNA-related information as well as data germane to politics, social views, religious orientations, musical tastes/predilections, entertainment interests, hopes, desires, aspirations and dreams, etc. Such a bar code (which could be entered into computers and on the internet) might easily be disseminated throughout the world – so that people could much more easily locate those whose major attributes are similar to their own.

IS: Given that changes in gender politics have altered the roles men and women play in society (and in romantic relationships), do you see love-shyness becoming a more prevalent problem among single women?

BG: One can argue that love-shyness in females is manifested by the shy woman refusing invitations for dates and for informal conversations with men, that she really would very much like to accept. Saying “no” all the time IN SOME CASES may reflect an underlying fear, anxiety, as well as severe shyness. But even those women thusly afflicted, are highly likely to still have their female friends. In fact, that is a major sex difference right there: love-shy males tend to be friendless vis-à-vis BOTH sexes, whereas love-shy females are merely deficient of subconsciously desired MALE companionship.

So in terms of rate data, I do not see changes in gender politics as having produced any increase in the prevalence of “love-shyness” among women.

In short, women can satisfy their needs for emotional intimacy by and through their female friendships. In contrast, MALES do not enjoy this luxury. Males can satisfy their emotional intimacy needs only through interaction with a female.

IS: In what direction would you like to see the research on dating and relationships initiation go?

BG: At University of London some fascinating work is being done using brain scans – e.g., SPECT scans, fMRI and PET scans, etc. – that can easily determine whether or not two people are actually indeed in love. Of course, this is separate from the love-shyness area of research. But I think it is worth mentioning.

I would like to see research conducted on a “Harrad College” type of model, wherein 18-year old college freshmen are paired off with opposite sexed room mates. I think that this could cultivate interpersonal skills, social self-confidence, as well as a more realistic, down-to-earth attitude with respect to heterosexual relationships. I think it might also cultivate an improved level of academic performance, at least in male students.

One of the promising areas of research pertains to what in social psychology is called “biased interaction”. This involves hiring confederates (very attractive, interpersonally well-skilled FEMALE confederates), and assigning them to go out on dates with love-shy males. The “twist” is that the love-shy male is unaware of the fact that he is dating someone who is being paid to go out with him.

This approach resembles “practice dating”, which I discuss at length in my book. However, it is a considerably more forceful approach that has shown considerable promise. Sharon Brehm discusses it in one of the earlier editions of her standard Social Psychology textbook – the 3rd edition, I think. Anyway, psychologists Robert Montgomery and Francis Hammerlie conducted a study using this strategy. And if their findings are to be believed, they achieved considerable success with it. “Biased interaction” has a history going back to 1937, when Cornell University psychologist Robert Guthrie did a study on just one “wallflower” girl – an experiment that worked quite well. And she, of course, was kept entirely unaware of the fact that she was a “guinea pig” in a psychology study.

The logistics of “biased interaction” and to a lesser extent, of “practice dating”, are very challenging. And so extremely few psychologists have used either of these strategies, or experimented with them.

IS: Modern developments in evidence-based behavioral healthcare (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure-based treatments) have been demonstrated to be effective in treating anxiety in a number of settings. Do you think these interventions have the potential to impact love-shyness?

BG: Love-shyness (including Asperger’s) inheres in the limbic system or in the EMOTIONAL BRAIN, NOT in the intellectual brain, NOT in the higher cortical, reasoning centers. This constitutes another reason for helping children as early in life as possible (example: at age 3 or 4), as soon as they begin to display symptoms.

Simply put, cognitive-behavioral therapy has its limits. I teach cognitive-behavioral therapy. And so I have great confidence in it, BUT NOT FOR THE FORM OF SOCIAL PHOBIA THAT BOGS A PERSON DOWN IN INFORMAL, UNSTRUCTURED SOCIAL SITUATIONS. As a case in point, the Joseph Wolpe “psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition” simply cannot be adapted to the dating scene – because it is unstructured, requires improvisation, and because there is no way to predict in advance what might happen over the course of a relationship.

In contrast, if a person is afraid of public speaking or playing the piano at a concert or appearing in a stage play, THIS SORT OF THING CAN BE CURED (or close to “cured”) USING PSYCHOTHERAPY BY RECIPROCAL INHIBITION – as well as other cognitive-behavioral strategies.

Rational reasoning simply will not release the amygdala from its imprisonment, nor will it modify traumatic memories, or normalized an abnormally high level of monoamine oxidase – or calm down an overly active RIGHT pre-frontal cortex.

Parenthetically, “biased interaction” would also quality as “exposure treatment”. But again, the logistics are overwhelmingly difficult for therapists and clinicians to negotiate.

IS: Thank you again for discussing your research with us. And thank you for all the work you’ve done to understand and help people develop happier and healthier love lives.

BG: I hope the foregoing ideas have provided you with some helpful insights.