Is Social Anxiety Really an Empathy-Based Superpower?
New research shows that socially anxious people have greater empathic accuracy.
Posted May 19, 2020
They judge me before they even know me. That’s why I’m better off alone. —Shrek
A patient sent me this meme from the movie Shrek. He said that this pretty much describes the logic behind his social anxiety and social withdrawal. When I asked for objective proof that he’s being judged, he said, “I can always tell when people are judging me, even if they try to hide it.”
New research indicates that he may not be entirely wrong. In fact, he’s likely to be perceiving certain aspects of other’s reactions more accurately than people without social anxiety disorder can.
A research project recently published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science attempts to ascertain the relationship between social anxiety, social anxiety disorder, social exclusion, and empathic accuracy. The first study compared 136 participants, half sub-clinical socially anxious individuals with matched “non-anxious” counterparts. The second study compared 126 participants, half with Social Anxiety Disorder diagnoses, and matched “non-anxious” counterparts. The goal was to tease out whether individuals with social anxiety, at both sub-clinical and clinical levels, have greater empathic accuracy than matched participants.
Research Design: How Accurate Is Your Mindreading?
The study attempted to resolve a controversy in the field of empathic accuracy: If socially anxious individuals do indeed have greater empathic accuracy, why does this not translate into greater social competence? The researchers used a novel method to understand the relationship between empathic accuracy and social withdrawal.
Rather than relying on retrospective measures, such as asking people about their history of social exclusion and their empathic accuracy, the researchers had participants employ both empathic accuracy and social reasoning directly. After completing measures of social anxiety, the participants were asked to watch a video of a subject talking about a painful experience of social exclusion.
The participants were then asked to rate their own emotional reaction while watching the video, and predict both the subject’s emotional state and the level of intensity of those emotions. Results were then computed to ascertain how accurate the participants were at predicting both the emotional state and level of intensity. Did the participant over-estimate the level of intensity, estimate correctly, or underestimate the level of intensity? Findings from both studies indicated that socially anxious individuals are much more empathically accurate than their non-anxious peers. This was true both for the sub-clinical and clinical samples. (To read more about understanding social anxiety disorder, click here.)
How to Be a Snob for Science: Social Exclusion Manipulation
One of the hypotheses for the first study was that non-clinical participants would be more empathically accurate if they first experienced social rejection. They set up a condition in which participants were artificially “rejected” by a confederate prior to the study.
However, the simple experience of social rejection, while rated as unpleasant, did not increase empathic accuracy. The participants who either had a prior history of either sub-clinical or formally diagnosed social anxiety were significantly more empathically accurate than their more typically functioning peers. A discrete incident of social exclusion did not provide any difference in empathic accuracy.
In the second study, participants with Social Anxiety Disorder and matched peers were asked to watch videos of participants talking about an incident of social exclusion. They were then asked to rate their own emotional state and the participant’s emotional state, exactly as was done in the first study.
The participants were then asked what advice they would give the individual in the videotape. This was an open-ended prompt. Participants could write as much or as little as they wished. They also had the option of choosing “no advice.”
We know that emotionally healthy individuals respond to social rejection or exclusion by seeking out positive social interaction that can counterbalance it. A healthy response to social rejection, such as being “dumped” by a romantic partner, would be to reach out to friends for social support and reaffirmation of worth. Unhealthy responses to social exclusion would be emotional suppression, dismissal (“I don’t really care about it. It’s not such a big deal”), or social withdrawal.
Responses were coded for “positive advice” – advice that encourages positive social interaction; “negative advice” – advice that encourages social withdrawal or emotion suppression; or “no advice.” To ensure that the responses were coded accurately, inter-rater agreement was established.
Socially anxious individuals, while much more empathically accurate, were much more likely to give negative advice. Their non-clinical peers were less accurate, but gave much better advice for handling the social rejection.
Social Anxiety Is a Superpower, and That’s the Problem
My patients with SAD are frequently astonishingly empathetic, and that superpower can harm them. I am always astonished by the accuracy and attention to detail my socially anxious adolescent patients use when describing the various social currents and factions in their high school. They are some of the best observers of the social scene, masters of thick description reminiscent of a fully trained qualitative researcher. In social situations, their rejection sensitivity means that they notice even subtle signs of social disapproval. When approaching a potential conversational partner, if a micro-expression of rejection crosses that person’s face, they are immediately on guard.
Sensitivity is a double-edged sword. Think of it this way: If you’re putting in an alarm system around your house, of course you want a very good motion sensor. After all, you’d want to catch any person with nefarious intent who was lurking around. But if the motion sensor went off every time a squirrel scampered over the lawn, or every time a leaf drifted off a tree, that level of sensitivity would be way too intrusive.
In the same way, when we approach others to socialize, they may have all sorts of expressions on their face. They may be preoccupied with a problem. They may still be upset over an earlier encounter. They may be annoyed at someone else entirely. The socially anxious individual can read those negative emotions well, but may misattribute them as rejection, when really that’s just an alarm that’s too sensitive.
When posting about my own history of shyness, I frequently am contacted by other mental health professionals who talk about their history of shyness, social exclusion, or full-blown social anxiety. Most talk about a journey that resonates with mine: They decided to stretch themselves out of their comfort zone, and learn social competency. Shyness doesn’t always equate with social incompetence. But practice makes proficient: The more we socialize, the more proficient we are at socialization. The little girl who reads a book during recess is doing nothing wrong, but she’s not practicing social competence the way the other kids are. Eventually, she may become a wonderful observer of the social world, but a terrible participant within it—until she decides that it’s a skill she wants to master.
But Socially Anxious People Were Terrible Counselors
I wonder if the empathic accuracy that social anxiety provides is helpful for those seeking to enter the mental health field. I hear from so many formerly shy or socially anxious colleagues who then went on to become mental health professionals. Most talk about how helpful some form of therapy was in helping them become more socially confident, and this sparked an interest in the field.
It’s true that the socially anxious participants in this study gave negative advice. But it’s also true that the beginning of almost any psychotherapeutic encounter involves widening the window of tolerance for upsetting emotions, understanding that emotions are passing states, that uncomfortable emotions are not emergencies, and that emotions can be tolerated, managed, and utilized. (To read more about helping kids tolerate their uncomfortable emotions, click here and here.)
Once socially anxious individuals understand this, it’s easy to teach the concept of social reconnection as an antidote to social exclusion. Once socially anxious individuals are more comfortable with their emotions, have lowered rejection sensitivity, and understand the healing power of relationships, their social anxiety begins to abate.
For those of us in the “helping professions” who have a social anxiety history, let’s use what our lives have taught us. Once we understand that we have sensors that are too sensitive, we can learn to temper those reactions. Once we understand that all emotions are welcome, and that the best antidote to social exclusion in social re-connection and affirmation, we can use our superpower to its fullest extent. (To read more about hacking challenges into superpowers, click here.)
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020
Auyeung, K., & Alden, L. E. (2020). Accurate Empathy, Social Rejection, and Social Anxiety Disorder. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(2), 266–279. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619885410