This week marks the publication of the Headcase's first book. It also marks my first several book readings. No serious Seinfeld fan can think of public speaking without recalling Jerry's monologue on that topic:

According to most studies, people's number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! Now, this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Personally, I think the public has far more to fear from my speaking than I do of its listening. But the anxiety produced by addressing a crowd is well-documented. Jesse Bering, over at Scientific American MIND, discussed his own such fear a couple weeks back in a column on the "neuropsychology of public speaking":

I much prefer the quiet, private, beautiful manipulativeness of writing alone behind my desk to the jarring, immediate, stony-eyed presence of my peers. And I'd be lying if I said that, on occasion, I didn't also find myself resorting to "considerable amounts of alcohol" to overcome this paralyzing dread of public speaking.

Needless to say, Bering immediately became a new Headcase favorite. He continued Bering gifts by mentioning a fascinating new study out of the University of Würzburg, in Germany. The research found that people who expected to give a public speech became "hypervigilant for certain types of faces in the audience, particularly those that betray an undercurrent of malicious thoughts toward us," writes Bering. You might even say that, to the person up on the podium, the angry faces in the crowd become over-Bering. (I don't see this getting old.)

The study, led by psychologist Matthias Wieser, was published in the March issue of Psychophysiology. The researchers separated fifty-seven participants into two groups. Those in one group were told, rather innocuously, that they would have to write a short essay toward the end of the experiment. Simply put, they had no reason to grow anxious during the test.

Those in the other group, however, were told they'd have to give a public talk that would be taped and evaluated for "appearance, speech content, vocalization, demonstrated confidence, and rhetoric skills." Meanwhile, a research confederate pretended to adjust settings on a video recorder that was situated in front of them. Oh yes, and by the way, to prepare this talk, they'd be given exactly one minute.

All subjects then were then attached to EEG electrodes and shown a series of different faces: some happy, some angry, and some neutral. As the faces appeared on a screen, the electrodes measured brain activity. Sure enough, those who expected to give a speech reacted far more quickly to angry faces than to happy and neutral ones. Those who thought they'd be writing an essay showed no such difference.

The authors explain their findings through an evolutionary perspective. Faces that appear angry or threatening, they argue, may prompt "an evolved behavioral system" of self-defense. The brain has a natural "fear network," which involves the amygdala, that enables a person to assess the likelihood of—and therefore avoid—impending "physical and mental harm." It's this alert system, the authors argue, that might be put on guard during public speaking:

Thus, the anticipation of a public speech might have turned on the amygdala, which, in turn, facilitates the processing of socialevaluative threatening stimuli like angry faces.

Such a defense makes perfect sense. After all, it helps to know whether the crowd you're addressing is actually booing, or merely saying Boo-urns (video link here):


The Headcase thanks Matthias Wieser for sending a pdf copy of his paper.

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