New research finds that individuals diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD) are more likely to use safety behaviors when engaging with others socially. As a result, they are not seen as likable or genuine by those they interact with. This research reveals that safety behaviors may be key to a cycle of awkward interactions that keep those with SAD avoiding others.
The new findings have been published in the journal Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is described as “an excessive fear of being evaluated negatively in social situations where an individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).” When those with SAD are required to interact with others they may engage in a variety of safety behaviors that they believe will protect them from negative feedback during social interactions.
These safety behaviors include things such as rehearsing what to say and inhibiting/restricting behaviors (including speaking very little or avoiding eye contact to escape notice). The final category of safety behaviors includes physical symptom management, like choosing specific clothing to hide physiological signs of anxiety.
Lead author Grishma Dabas and colleagues sought to understand the impact that inhibiting/restricting safety behaviors may have on how the SAD individual is perceived by their social interaction partner. They hypothesized that the social interaction partner would rate SAD individuals who engage in inhibiting/restricting safety behaviors as less likable, less authentic, and less desirable as future social interaction partners. In addition, the research team posits that those with SAD will also rate themselves as less authentic than participants without SAD.
There were 69 participants in total — 40 were part of the non-SAD group and had been recruited from an introduction to psychology course at a large Canadian University. The remaining 29 participants were individuals diagnosed with SAD and seeking treatment in a cognitive behavioral therapy program. The experiment also included eight female confederates randomly assigned to speak to various participants. In addition, the confederates received training on holding mock conversations.
Participants completed measures of social phobia, state anxiety, and safety behaviors in the same room as the confederates, who appeared to be filling out their surveys. When their assessments were completed, they were then asked to participate in a “getting to know your task” with a confederate. This task included scripted prompts they were to discuss with their interaction partner, like “tell your partner a bit about yourself.”
“Upon completion of the task, the participant completed a second set of questionnaires about use of safety behaviours, and a felt-sense of authenticity. At the same time, the confederate was relocated to a different room and completed a set of questionnaires about how likeable and authentic they found the participant,” the researchers explained.
Analysis of this data revealed that the SAD participants were rated significantly lower than the non-SAD participants in the assessment of authenticity and likeability. There were no differences between SAD and non-SAD subjects in their desire for future interaction. Participants with SAD also perceived themselves as less authentic than those without SAD.
Participants with SAD self-reported more inhibiting/restricting safety behaviors, and the researchers found that these were most likely the cause of SAD participants feeling disingenuous and being perceived as less likeable.
The research team acknowledges there are some limitations to their work. First, the SAD and non-SAD groups differed significantly in age. The non-SAD group was made up of college undergrads, and the average age of the SAD group was 35. Second, not every pair chatting was gender-matched, it could be that this may have led to more feelings of anxiety
Despite these limitations, the study contributes to the study of SAD and possible therapeutic interventions for the disorder. The research team concludes that their work contributes “to a growing literature suggesting that some, but not all, safety behaviors may play an important role in creating the negative social outcomes that individuals with SAD experience.”
The study, “The impact of particular safety behaviors on perceived likeability and authenticity during interpersonal interactions in social anxiety disorder”, was authored by Grishma Dabas, Karen Rowa, Irena Milosevic, David A. Moscovitch, and Randi E. McCabe