Social Anxiety: What Would People Think?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Social anxiety stems from the concern of what people would think about someone. Every person wants to create social impressions that display their personality correctly and earn them the reactions they desire. However, when they get too concerned, social anxiety can fully disturb their social life and cause psychological trouble.

The photo shows a disappointed woman sitting next to a man.
Social anxiety is good for people until it gets so severe that it leads them away from social situations and interactions. (Image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock)

Almost every normal person has experienced social anxiety on job interviews, on dates, when meeting new people, or when speaking in front of groups. It is a natural consequence of trying to make the right social impression and convey the right messages about oneself. Social interactions are built upon people’s impressions of each other, so everyone tries to create impressions that lead to the desired behavior from other people.

From a social psychological standpoint, keeping an eye on how one is perceived and evaluated by others can be very beneficial. A world with people who do not care about other people’s opinions is a world of unstable and destroyed relationships. However, like all other negative emotions, social anxiety can also turn into a problem.

Learn more about why do we have emotions?

Fear of Negative Impressions

Shy, nervous female employee standing in front of five people in an office, with her hand over her face looking embarrassed.
The most common cause of social anxiety is speaking in front of a group, and almost everyone has experienced it. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

When a person worries too much about the impressions they create, they might avoid social situations. People who are afraid of making bad impressions fall into a loop of social anxiety and bad impressions: they feel anxious that they might not leave a good impression, so they withdraw from interactions. Then, they fear that running away from interactions also leaves a negative impression, so their anxiety increases.

The anxiety can grow so big that people begin to commit harmful and dangerous actions to create the desired impression.

Accidents and Injuries

Some accidents that lead to serious injuries or even death are not preventable. Nevertheless, a large number of accidents and injuries are caused by people’s deliberate actions, sometimes in self-presentational attempts. For example, teenagers try to impress their group of friends by reckless driving, which is why there are thousands of car accidents involving a carload of teenagers every year. In a study on dangerous things that teenagers would do to impress their peers, 30% of the teenagers reported that they had driven recklessly in order to impress their friends.

There are numerous other cases where people hurt themselves or get themselves killed by risky or stupid things that they do to impress others. Examples include riding on the tops of cars, jumping from very high places into the water, and racing downhill in runaway shopping carts. It might not be a surprise that men engage in such actions more than women.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Men Vs. Women in Showing Off

Studies show that men are more likely to engage in stupid actions with the aim of impressing others. This does not mean that men are more reckless or stupid by nature. It is a result of different image values among men: fearless, cool, or fun-loving is valued more among men than women.

Also, for evolution-based reasons, men may be biologically predisposed to take risks to obtain social attention and status. Males with higher social status have a higher chance of attracting a female and reproducing.

Learn more about how much do men and women really differ?

Values Change Over the Years

The harms do not stop at accidents. There are at least a million new cases of skin cancer in the United States each year, and a large proportion of those cases are people purposefully trying to get a tan. People get cancer over impressing others! Why has this increased recently? Because values have changed due to changes in society.

In the 1800s, the lower-class workers, such as farmers, worked outside and had a deep tan. Thus, pale skin was valued for white people, as it meant they were not laborers, but professionals. However, in the 1900s, the industrial revolution moved much of the working class inside into factories, so blue-collar workers had pale skin. On the other hand, upper-class people had time for vacations and getting a tan. Hence, today it makes a positive impression to be tanned.

Woman curled up on a bed with a pillow over her head. A bottle of open pills next to her.
Depending on social values, self-presentation changes to impress others, and those who fail to keep up with the new requirements face greater anxiety every day. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Another example is being old. In a society where older people are not viewed or treated as well as younger adults, senior citizens try not to look old. They resist getting help from others and use anti-aging products. However, in a society where old people are taken care of and treated with more respect, nobody would resist help or dye their gray hair.

Social anxiety is a psychological factor that follows us through life and never disappears in a mentally-healthy person. However, high doses of it can cause serious problems or disorders and even lead to death.

Common Questions about Social Anxiety

Q: What triggers social anxiety?

The most common cause of social anxiety is to be highly motivated to make a desired impression but to be fairly certain that one will not be able to make it.

Q: Can social anxiety be positive?

Yes, social anxiety is often useful because it alerts people to situations in which they need to pay special attention to how they are perceived by other people.

Q: Is social anxiety common?

Yes. Social anxiety is a very common experience in the face of social situations, like job interviews or dates, meeting new people, or speaking in front of groups.

Q: Are people with no social anxiety more successful?

Not necessarily. Social anxiety helps people behave more attentively in situations that require more attention and are more important. A certain level of it is necessary for success, but higher levels affect life negatively.

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