Social Anxiety Definition
Social anxiety, as the term implies, refers to anxiety (a feeling of emotional distress akin to fear or panic) experienced in interpersonal situations, such as job interviews, dates, public presentations, or casual social gatherings. Because of the variety of situations in which people experience social anxiety, several specific types of social anxiety have been investigated in the literature, including public speaking anxiety, audience anxiety, stage fright, sport performance anxiety, and physique anxiety, to name a few. Regardless of the specific situation in which social anxiety occurs, the physical and psychological feelings that accompany social anxiety are common to all: butterflies in the stomach, increased heart rate, light-headedness, sweaty palms, and fear.
Social Anxiety Background and History
Although everyone experiences social anxiety from time to time, some people experience debilitating levels of social anxiety, so much so that they avoid social situations altogether. The pervasiveness of social anxiety might lead one to believe that extensive theoretical and empirical attention has been devoted to the topic. On the contrary, however, empirical research on social anxiety is relatively recent, with an explosion of research on the topic within the past decade.
Charles Darwin addressed the topic of social anxiety in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. In a comparison of shyness and fear, Darwin noted that shyness, although similar to fear is still distinct from it. A person who is shy may not enjoy being around other people, but does not fear those others. Shortly after the turn of the century, the Japanese philosopher Yoritomo-Tashi, in his book entitled Timidity: How to Overcome It, examined the topic of social anxiety, as well as ways to combat it.
Darwin’s and Yoritomo-Tashi’s contributions to our knowledge of social anxiety were largely conceptual. Empirical attention to the topic of social anxiety began when feelings of distress in social situations emerged during the 1940s and 1950s as one of the core dimensions of personality. Still, another 15 to 20 years passed before focused research attention was devoted to social anxiety, fueled largely by the creation of two trait measures of social anxiety: The Social Avoidance and Distress Scale and the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension. With scales to measure subjective and behavioral indices of social anxiety, a flurry of research on the topic began.
Not surprisingly, these initial studies focused primarily on individual differences in social anxiety. With time, however, three other directions for research on social anxiety took root. Some researchers turned their attention to situational determinants of social anxiety. Others focused more on developmental issues related to social anxiety, examining specifically the reasons why some people are more socially anxious than others. A third area of research examined the treatment of social anxiety.
From these studies, several theories developed to account for why people experience social anxiety. The most recent and compelling of these models is the self-presentational theory of social anxiety developed by Barry Schlenker and Mark Leary. According to this model, people experience social anxiety when two conditions are met: They are motivated to make an impression on other people, and they doubt their ability to do so. Imagine, for example, a person applying for a very desirable job. This individual is motivated to make a favorable impression on the interviewer. If he or she is certain that the desired impression will be made, then social anxiety is not experienced. If, on the other hand, he or she doubts that the desired impression will be made, then social anxiety creeps in. Should the person fail to make the desired impression and actually make an undesired impression, a self-presentational predicament is created and he or she experiences embarrassment.
Importance and Consequences of Social Anxiety
The universality of the experience of social anxiety and the array of situations that precipitate it suggest that it plays an important role in interpersonal behavior. Indeed, social anxiety may help keep people from behaving in ways that damage their social images and undermine their acceptance by other people. A person who never felt socially anxious would not care about the impressions he or she makes or would be overconfident regarding his or her success at making desired impressions. The experience of social anxiety may interrupt social behavior and alert people that their behavior may not be making the desired impression. Viewed in this way, the experience of social anxiety provides people with a warning to change the course that their behavior is taking.
Even so, when social anxiety is experienced too frequently, too intensely, or in situations in which concerns with others’ impressions are misplaced, it can become maladaptive. Excessive social anxiety can disrupt people’s life goals, such as being a competitive athlete or effective salesperson, and impair the development or maintenance of social relationships. For some people, the experience of social anxiety is so debilitating that they simply avoid the social situations that precipitate the anxiety. For example, people may avoid medical examinations, such as pelvic exams, because of the potential for anxiety and embarrassment. Similarly, they may fail to reveal embarrassing medical conditions because of the anxiety surrounding such disclosures.
Individual Differences in Social Anxiety
Whereas some people experience social anxiety only rarely, others experience chronic social anxiety. Furthermore, for some people social anxiety is only mildly uncomfortable, whereas for others (at least 2% of the population), it is debilitating enough to be labeled “social phobia” according to psychiatric diagnostic criteria. Several scales have been developed to measure individual differences in social anxiety. Some of these scales, such as the Social Avoidance and Distress Scale, measure both the subjective and behavioral manifestations of social anxiety. However, many people feel very anxious in social situations yet come across to others as if they were not nervous at all. Therefore, some other scales were created, such as the Interaction Anxiousness Scale, that focus exclusively on the subjective feeling of social anxiety, independently of how a socially anxious person might behave.
- Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1995). Social anxiety. New York: Guilford Press.
- Schlenker, B. R., & Leary, M. R. (1982). Social anxiety and self-presentation: A conceptualization and model. Psychological Bulletin, 92, 641-669.