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Associate Professor at Leiden University
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I don’t think I can socialize

It is that time again when your extroverted friend drags you along to join them to a party. You think to yourself that you would probably like to stay at home and just binge-watch a television show. The thought of socializing alone makes your heartbeat accelerate, and worries ponder, “But I am not good at socializing!”. This is the typical thought process of a socially anxious person before any social event. However, is it fair for them to assume that they are not good at socializing and therefore avoid these situations altogether? 

In some social situations, it’s natural to feel nervous. Like going on a date or giving a presentation can cause butterflies in your stomach. These butterflies are an indication that you are feeling nervous and anxious. However, these butterflies are paired with overwhelming anxiety, fear, self-consciousness, and awkwardness for socially anxious individuals when they engage with others. Socially anxious individuals may also have an extreme fear of being judged, and they are concerned about humiliation, embarrassment, or the possibility of offending someone. That is why instead of facing a social situation, they decide to avoid it because they are afraid something bad would happen. But are they likely to suffer more mishaps than non-socially anxious individuals? Lets find out.

To recognize is to socialize

“Is the other person smiling? No, that is not a smile; is it a frown? Oh, are they yawning now? Are they bored?” Studies have shown that correctly understanding the emotions of others helps to have a smooth social interaction. Thus, the interaction starts from the moment that we perceive all this information from the other’s face. Previous studies described social anxiety as lacking the ability to correctly recognize emotions. More specifically, socially anxious individuals were found to misclassify a neutral expression as an emotional one like sadness or anger. Thus, could their fear for mishaps be justified by their altered ability to recognize the emotions of others. Many studies were not convinced by this notion and found that those individuals could easily classify when someone is happy, sad, or even neutral. If socially anxious individuals possess an important skill to have smooth interactions, then what might be the reason for them to think they cannot?

Emotion recognition vs. self-evaluation

If you search for ‘confidence quotes’ on any search engine, you will come across many quotes that ultimately tell one thing, confidence leads to a satisfied and happy life. In science, confidence can often be translated to self-evaluation. In other words, the ability to correctly evaluate your own behavior, which is necessary for handling your own decisions and behavior. A new light of research is linking self-evaluation and especially a disruption of it to poor mental health. You can envision it as a vicious cycle. An individual with low confidence will start to believe that they cannot (in this case) socialize, which will only lead to a worse performance than was initially the case. This negative experience makes them lose self-confidence and makes the anxiety worse. When we lose confidence in ourselves, we begin to criticize ourselves more, and so on and so forth. Self-evaluation is thus likely to sustain confidence or the lack of it. One study especially highlighted that individuals with social anxiety have significantly lowered confidence while their performance did not differ from non-anxious individuals. 

Recently, we performed a study in which we put these notions to the test. Are socially anxious individuals flawed at socializing (poor emotion recognition skills), or do they just have a lowered confidence about their performance? With this study, we aimed to understand better why socially anxious individuals like to avoid social gatherings. Participants were presented with videos of individuals displaying emotions and were asked to correctly indicate the emotion expressed. After this, they indicated how confident they felt about their own performance. Interestingly, we found that social anxiety does not affect the ability to recognize emotions. However, high socially anxious individuals feel significantly less confident about this ability compared to non-socially anxious individuals.

To socialize is to know you can socialize

Facial emotion recognition is known to play an important role in smooth social interactions. The lack of confidence in emotion recognition abilities might enhance the sense of not interacting socially. In other words, socially anxious individuals might recognize emotions accurately, even though their lowered confidence and high self-criticism might make them believe that they cannot. For this reason, they may sustain weak social interactions. Like Bandura (1969) also pointed out about psychopathology in general:

“Many of the people who seek treatment are neither incompetent nor anxiously inhibited, but they experience a great deal of distress stemming from excessively high standards for self-evaluation.”

Social anxiety disorder cannot be taken lightly. The fear of believing that you will be judged and embarrassed in front of a bunch of strangers can make a person cut off from social gatherings.

Implementing treatments that focus on restoring their self-evaluation and confidence could help socially anxious individuals so that they won’t have to continuously reject the invite from their extroverted friends.

Ruya Akdag received a BSc degree in Psychology from Radboud University Nijmegen in 2017.

Subsequently, she received a (research)MSc degree in cognitive neuroscience from Leiden University in 2020 with distinction.

During her master internship she joined the CoPAN lab to conduct her own project focused on social anxiety.

Specifically, she focused on metacognition and emotion processing in socially anxious individuals.

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