A study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion suggests that people can grow anxious toward self-attributes (e.g., being unintelligent, appearing nervous) after seeing these attributes repeatedly paired with negative evaluations. The findings suggest that anxiety toward self-attributes — a core feature of social anxiety — can be picked up through acquisition learning.
Anxiety is the most common mental health concern around the world, and psychology researchers have invested in understanding how anxiety is developed. Experimental studies have revealed that anxiety can be learned — when a harmless object is repeatedly presented at the same time as a negative outcome, people will begin to show an anxiety response to the harmless object, even in the absence of the stressor.
Study authors Klint Fung and his team wanted to explore whether a similar process occurs with social anxiety — a tendency to avoid social situations due to fear of negative evaluation. People with social anxiety maintain negative views of the self, endorsing negative self-attributes like being unintelligent or nervous. Fung and colleagues proposed that these individuals may have learned these associations through past experiences when they were negatively evaluated on these characteristics. However, self-attributes are abstract concepts, and it is unclear whether people can learn anxiety toward more intangible concepts.
“Many psychologists understand anxiety and anxiety disorders through classical conditioning,” explained Fung, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia. “A well-known example is the Little Albert experiment. Little Albert is a baby who did not show fear towards furry things. Researchers showed furry things (aka the ‘stimulus’) together with loud noises (aka the ‘outcome’) to Little Albert, which caused him to develop fear towards furry things even without the loud noise.”
“People are afraid of different things in the environment and the fear often causes inconveniences and impairment. Psychologists try to understand what are the ‘stimuli’ and ‘outcomes’ for different types of anxiety. In other words, what is the equivalent of the furry thing and the loud noise, say, for someone is socially anxious? So far, researchers proposed faces/physical characteristics of people is a ‘stimulus’ and negative evaluation is an ‘outcome’, which means social rejection may cause people to become anxious when they encounter the person who gave rejection, or others who look like the one providing rejection.”
“Social situations are complex, consisting of faces/physical characteristics of people, but also factors like the authority of the person you are talking to, if the situation is formal/informal etc. Dr. Lynn Alden, Chloe Sernasie, and I tested this new idea that self-attributes, or how one sees oneself in different domains, can also be a stimulus in addition to faces/physical characteristics of people,” Fung said.
“There is one problem. Classical conditioning experiments like Little Albert usually use tangible stimuli and outcomes like pictures, tones, shocks, and loud noises. It would be difficult to assume that an abstract idea like self-attributes could be a stimulus. Luckily, there was a recent experiment that showed abstract ideas can also be a stimulus and we used that procedure to test if self-attributes could be stimuli as well.”
Fung and his colleagues devised their own experiment to examine whether pairing self-attributes with negative evaluation would elicit increased anxiety toward these attributes. First, among a sample of college students, the researchers confirmed that the two self-attributes of low intelligence and appearing nervous are associated with social anxiety and that the two attributes are partially distinct concepts.
Next, they recruited a separate sample of 213 college students to complete an associative learning task in the lab. Before the computer task, the subjects were advised that they would be receiving either a negative evaluation or no negative evaluation on various self-attributes. Each student either saw attributes associated with low intelligence paired with negative evaluation or attributes related to appearing nervous paired with negative evaluation.
At each trial, the participant saw a question on the screen that noted the self-attribute they would be judged on (e.g. “Do I think you look like an idiotic person?”), accompanied by an image of a neutral facial expression. After this screen, participants rated how anxious they felt over the upcoming evaluation and the extent that they expected the evaluation to be negative. Then, a third screen appeared revealing either a negative evaluation (e.g., “Yes, I think you look like an idiotic person” and an angry face) or no negative evaluation (e.g., “No, I do not think you look like an idiotic person” and a neutral face).
It was found that starting from the fifth trial (out of 20 total trials), participants showed increased anxiety toward whichever attribute had been paired with negative evaluation. Starting from the fourth trial, participants showed greater expectancy that the evaluations would be negative for the attributes paired with negative evaluation.
A collection of different words were used during the trials, corresponding with the categories of low intelligence (e.g., ignorant, brainless, foolish) and appearing nervous (e.g., shaky, insecure, timid). Still, participants showed increased anxiety to words that fell under the attribute category that was paired with negative evaluation.
“It shows that participants learned certain self-attributes were associated with negative evaluation in the form of classical conditioning,” Fung told PsyPost. “Because every trial involves a different word/adjective, these results are likely not because of how these words look in text, but the abstract meaning of the self-attribute behind it.”
These findings might help explain how people develop anxiety toward social situations they have yet to experience. Studies suggest social anxiety involves a memory network formed from social rejection and poor social relationships. Fung and his team say that self-attributes, although abstract, appear to be included in this memory network.
“The hypothesis that faces/physical characteristics of people are stimuli has something it can’t explain,” Fung said. “People are socially anxious towards people who do not look like those who negatively evaluated/rejected/bullied/criticized them in the past. The new hypothesis we tested — self-attributes being a stimulus — can explain it. For example, a boy may be negatively evaluated for being boring by his parent, and when he goes on a first date with someone he just met, he may feel anxious because he is expected to be interesting in that situation. It is important to note that the two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. So people can associate both faces/physical characteristics of people and self-attributes with negative evaluation.”
The study, “Social anxiety and the acquisition of anxiety towards self-attributes”, was authored by Klint Fung, Lynn E. Alden, and Chloe Sernasie.