Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shyness, Social Anxiety and Your Rank in the Social Hierarchy

Imagine this:

You arrive at a party where you know a few of the guests, but most are strangers. Your anxiety is elevated, with increases in breathing rate, heart rate, and perspiration. You seek the people you do know, which offers some sense of comfort. You feel unable to maintain eye contact with the people you don't know and feel a bit insecure. You work hard to appear cool and calm. You do not want to seem shy and insecure, but you fear that people can tell you are anxious.


1. Why are you anxious?
2. Why are you seeking "shelter" in the form of people you know?
3. Why are you avoiding eye contact?
4. Why do strive to appear cool and calm - and fear appearing anxious?

To Standout and Fit In

The above scenario may be a familiar one to a number of readers. Whether you are someone with Social Phobia or perhaps a bit shy in new social settings, experiencing anxiety in this manner is common for many people.

I could probably fill a book outlining all of the psychological factors involved in reactions like these, but that would be unnecessary (there exist books that essentially do this already) and exhausting. Instead, I want to answer the four questions posed above by making reference to research on social rank and social affiliation.

When it comes to interpreting and understanding interpersonal interactions among people, it is useful to bear in mind two different systems of motivation - social rank and social affiliation. Both are rooted in evolutionary biology, and so using an example involving animals can help explain these concepts.

You may remember, from watching the Discovery channel or some film on animal societies in your high school humanities class, that many mammals live together in social groups which are hierarchically structured. This means that structure is imposed on the group by way of social ranking of members - some are at the top of the hierarchy (the alpha males), while other members are below this upper echelon. Usually, power and dominance determine the hierarchies' structure.

This type of social system serves a purpose, in that there are no useless battles and arguments over territory and food. The group can therefore operate as a functional unit. Those who are lower in the ranks simply follow the leader(s). In this context, anxiety serves an important group function - it forces subordinates to be aware of the dominant members and play their role. There is another motivation in knowing one's social rank - it prevents harm through attacks. In sum, subordinates in a social hierarchy show signs of submission to the superior members to prevent harm (through attacks) and to maintain the structured system.

In humans,there exists somewhat of a similar social ranking among people in societies around the world. For example, in North America, the social hierarchy in place would have those in positions of power and wealth at the top of the hierarchy - not so much because of aggressive dominance (political leaders and CEOs don't physically dominate people), but because they control the distribution of resources and other sources of reinforcement.

There are other factors that determine social hierarchy in humans, including socially valued attributes, such as attractiveness, intelligence, and sense of humour. These qualities have the potential to increase likeability and therefore increase the probability of being accepted by others. These also relate to social rank. However, they also relate to the second motivational system mentioned earlier - the affiliation system. By connecting with other people and being liked and accepted, we reduce the likelihood of harm from aggression and rejection, and increase the probability of safety and the acquisition of benefits (ex: finding job and being promoted).

Therefore, affiliation with others tends to lower anxiety. 

So, how does knowing about social rank and affiliation answer the above questions?

1. Why do you feel anxious?

The amount of social anxiety experienced in a given social situation is dependent in part on one's assessment of social rank and affiliation ability.

Social rank is something that is both global and contextual. It is global because one could estimate their rank in terms of general society (ex: being a NASA rocket scientist confers higher rank than an unemployed teenager - generally speaking). However, social settings can impact rank as well. At a high school party, it is possible for an unemployed teenager to be revered more than a rocket scientist.

Returning to the original example, if you feel insecure about your rank, both globally and in that context (ex: there are many successful and popular people there), then social anxiety is likely to be elevated.

In terms of affiliation, if you know few people at the party (which is the case in this example) and you predict that the likelihood is low of successfully affiliating with strangers, then anxiety is also going to be elevated.

2. Why are you seeking people you know as a source of shelter?

As mentioned earlier, affiliation tends to lower anxiety and therefore will be reinforcing in this context.

3. Why are you avoiding eye contact?

This relates to the social rank aspect of interpersonal relating. It is an act of submission that serves the purpose of avoiding negative attention, evaluation, and ultimately rejection (which can be painful).

4. Why try to avoid showing others that you feel anxious?

Anxiety symptoms themselves can be interpreted as signs of submission to others and indicators of being lower in social rank. Reduced eye contact, shaky limbs, quivering voice, indecisiveness, etc. are similar to responses one might observe with a subordinate around a dominant member of a group.

Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of being lower in social rank and subordinate to others. They might interpret their own anxiety symptoms as indicating to others that they are weak and insecure.

For many people, such symptoms and thoughts are disturbing and annoying. It can be particularly annoying if you are generally happy and successful in life with plenty of friends, yet feel anxious and uncomfortable in social settings. As such, they may try and fight these symptoms and thoughts. Unfortunately, fighting anxiety can oftentimes makes it worse.

What to Do?

If social anxiety, negative thoughts and problems with affiliation (including issues with social skills and/ or likeability) are compromising your ability to enjoy and function in social settings, consider seeking the services of a psychologist.

You may also consider reading The Need to be Liked, which deals with many of these issues.

Notable References

Weisman et al. (2011). Social rank and affiliation in social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 399-405.

Trower & Gilbert (1989). New theoretical conceptions of social anxiety and social phobia. Clinical Psychology Review, 19-35.