A recent study published in BMC Psychology found that social anxiety predicted visible signs of discomfort during two social interaction tasks. However, social anxiety had no impact on subjects’ performance in terms of verbal fluency, verbal expression, or adequacy of eye contact.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) has been associated with numerous adverse outcomes, such as impaired quality of life and poor psychological health. It has also been suggested that social anxiety “exists on a severity continuum” and that even non-clinical levels can significantly impact well-being.
Findings have been mixed, however, on the subject of whether or not social anxiety impairs social behavior. Some studies suggest that social anxiety does not provoke observable differences in social performance, while other studies have uncovered noticeable behavioral impairment in terms of speech clarity and “awkwardness”.
Study authors Thompson and colleagues discuss the possibility that social anxiety might affect certain dimensions of social behavior but not others. “There is some evidence,” they say, “that social anxiety may selectively exacerbate observable anxiety signs but have little impact on performance ‘quality’ (e.g. factors central to effective communication).”
To assess this idea, a study was conducted involving a sample of 93 university students with an average age of 25. Overall, the sample had a mean score of 20 on the Social Phobia Scale, which was above average for typical undergraduates but below the average for individuals with SAD.
Participants completed two social tasks in random order. In the speech task, the students were given 3 minutes to prepare a speech that they then presented in front of an audience of 3 confederates. In the interaction task, students were introduced to a confederate of the opposite sex and instructed to learn as much as they could about the stranger in 3 minutes. The participants were told to ask questions and the confederates were told to give minimal responses.
Students completed an assessment of state anxiety directly before each task (to assess anticipatory anxiety) and immediately following each task (to assess anxiety experienced during the task). Additionally, participants were rated by the confederates following each task, according to the Social Performance Rating Scale (SPRS). The SPRS assessed students’ behavioral discomfort, use of eye contact, voice quality, length of speech, and, for the interaction task, verbal fluency/flow.
Results showed that for both the speech and interaction tasks, social anxiety scores predicted higher observer ratings of behavioral discomfort, like fidgeting or trembling. Social anxiety, however, was not associated with any other dimension on the SPRS, such as verbal expression or fluency.
“The current results,” Thompson and colleagues say, “suggest that, at the non-clinical level at least, social anxiety may magnify the visible signs of anxiety but have little impact on other social behavior dimensions that were assessed here.”
While the researchers acknowledge that this lack of impact on performance is surprising, they share several possible explanations for this. One suggestion is that the tendency for socially anxious individuals to use coping strategies, such as polite smiling and avoiding interrupting others, may be compensating for any adverse effects of anxiety on social performance. The authors express that these speculations need further study.
The study authors discuss the implications of their findings concerning the treatment of social anxiety. “Techniques that help the individual recognize their use of anxious behaviors (e.g., throat clearing, fidgeting) and practicing elimination of these in a safe environment may be especially beneficial,” they say. “If successful, these techniques may produce more successful outcomes in situations where reduced signs of anxiety might be considered favorable, such as job interviews or presentations.”
The study, “Social anxiety increases visible anxiety signs during social encounters but does not impair performance”, was authored by Trevor Thompson, Nejra Van Zalk, Christopher Marshall, Melanie Sargeant, and Brendon Stubbs.