Craig D. Marker Ph.D.

Face Your Fear

Fear

Fear of Positive Evaluation

When Compliments are Not Fun

Posted Mar 02, 2013

Social Anxiety Disorderis usually characterized by a fear of negative evaluation. People with social anxiety are very worried about being judged negatively. This fear is the reason that people with social anxiety often avoid social situations. There is a great deal of research demonstrating the link between fear of negative evaluation and social anxiety (e.g., Mansell & Clark, 1999). The DSM-V working group called fear of negative evaluation the core fear in Social Anxiety Disorder

However, recent research also points to the fear of positive evaluation as being a key component of social anxiety (Weeks, Heimberg, & Rodebaugh, 2008). People with social anxiety may also fear being positively evaluated, as well as being evaluated negatively. One evolutionary psychology explanation for this link is that social anxiety evolved to promote peaceful interactions (Gilbert, 2001). People with social anxiety may fear an increase in status because it could lead to conflict with more powerful others. They may feel they will not be able to defend their newly obtained higher social status. That is, the may fear doing well because they will have to defend themselves.  

In clients with social anxiety, I have seen many instances where people go to great lengths to avoid positive evaluation. One client described one of his most traumatic memories as a surprise birthday party where he was the center of attention for hours.  Another client stayed home from work on a day he was set to receive an award.

Even famous people have noted instances of fear of positive evaluation. Barry Sanders described in an interview, how he wanted to get out of going to the Heisman Trophy Award ceremony because he did not like all of the attention. Even after scoring touchdowns, he quickly handed the ball to the referee and seemed to disappear out of the spotlight as quickly as possible (while many of his contemporary players pursued excessive touchdown celebrations). Furthermore, he retired early when he was very close to breaking the all-time rushing record (possibly to avoid a public celebration). 

In treatment, we often conduct exposures where we put people in situations where they are the center of attention (after many easier steps that lead up to these more difficult exposures). We have people sit in crowded restaurants and have the staff sing happy birthday to them. We have them go to Karaoke night and stay up on stage when people clap for them (instead of running off the stage as quickly as possible). We bring our professional camera down a very tourist filled street and take pictures of them as if they are a model. Each of these exposures provide experiences teaching them they can deal with the anxiety associated with positive evaluation (exposures generally teach people they can deal with the feared situation).

One future question for research is how large of a component fear of positive evaluation is for people with social anxiety.  Previous research has shown it is a predictor of social anxiety and it correlates highly with the fear of negative evaluation (Weeks, Heimberg, & Rodebaugh, 2008). However, it might also discriminate between people with shyness and clinical levels of social anxiety.  

If you are interested in completing a measure on this construct, you can complete the Fear of Positive Evaluation Scale

Gilbert, P. (2001). Evolution and social anxiety: The role of attraction, social competition, and social hierarchies. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 24, 723–751.

Mansell, W., & Clark, D. M. (1999). How do I appear to others? Social anxiety and processing of the observable self. Behavior Research and Therapy, 37, 419–434.

Weeks, J. W., Heimberg, R. G., & Rodebaugh, T. L., (2008). The Fear of Positive Evaluation Scale: assessing a proposed cognitive component of social anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22(1), 44–55. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.08.002