Socially anxious people usually worry about seeming socially inept and being rejected. Given the intense anxiety they often experience in social situations, they wonder if their social anxiety is noticeable and whether or not others can tell they have it.
Social anxiety often comes along with observable signs of physical arousal. However, affected people tend to overestimate the degree to which others notice these cues. There is no easily discernible objective feature which indicates whether a person has social anxiety or is merely being shy and somewhat insecure.
Let’s have a closer look on the findings of the available research literature.
Self & Observer Ratings of Social Anxiety
A common feature among socially anxious individuals is the tendency to overestimate the degree to which their anxiety is noticeable to others and to underestimate how well they perform in social situations (e.g., Rapee & Lim, 1992; Norton & Hope, 2001).
When asking independent observers to rate them, people with social anxiety often perform better on these measures than they think.
The extent to which a person fears being judged and negatively evaluated, as well as the amount of negative thoughts they think, are directly linked to these differences in perception (Norton & Hope, 2001).
This pattern can be observed across different psychological conditions, in which people with psychological problems view themselves in a more negative light than do others.
It appears as if this is especially true for those with social anxiety disorder (SAD), who are likely to experience a negativity bias when evaluating their own social appearance.
By viewing themselves as more anxious than they actually are and by judging their performance worse than it actually is, they attempt to play it safe and avoid worse case outcomes.
However, this does not mean that the self-evaluations of socially anxious people are completely off.
Although research findings suggest a negativity bias regarding their own persona, they also point out real impairments in social performance and more intense anxiety compared to healthy controls.
This means that anxiety can be noticed and social performance is decreased, simply not as much as socially anxious people believe they are.
Visible Signs of Anxiety & Social Desirability
Generally speaking, people with social anxiety disorder see themselves as inferior to others and live with the feeling that they cannot measure up to them (Antony, Rowa, Liss, Swallow, & Swinson, 2005; Weisman, Aderka, Marom, Hermesh, & Gilboa-Schechtman, 2011).
In line with this idea are the findings that people with SAD are often convinced that others have very high and rigid standards for social performance (e.g., Moscovitch, 2009; Moscovitch & Hofmann , 2007) and they expect being judged and negatively evaluated if they do not abide by them (Bielak & Moscovitch, 2012; Wilson & Rapee, 2005).
For this reason, socially anxious people conceal parts of themselves that may be socially undesirable and engage in subtle or full blown avoidance behaviors to avoid being criticized or rejected (Heerey & Kring, 2011; Plasencia, Alden, & Taylor, 2011).
One of the things people with social phobia most commonly try to conceal are their physical signs of anxiety (Bielak & Moscovitch, 2012).
In the minds of socially anxious people, visible signs of anxiety are a strong indicator of low social desirability.
Research suggests that people with SAD link such signs to decreased strength of character and attractiveness, as well as to being abnormal and seeming as if having a psychiatric condition and severe anxiety (Purdon, Antony, Monteiro, & Swinson, 2001; Roth, Antony, & Swinson, 2001).
Interestingly, people with high social anxiety overestimate the positive attributes that come along with appearing socially confident (Bielak & Moscovitch, 2012).
Much like the halo effect, in which we falsely attribute highly desirable qualities to physically attractive people (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991), socially anxious people believe that seeming confident in social interactions comes along with a whole range of benefits.
Among other things, this leads to two effects. Firstly, it increases their anxiety when around self-confident individuals, given that they feel like they are out of their league and crave their approval.
Secondly, it leads to attempts of suppressing any visible signs of anxiety, which paradoxically tends to intensifies them.
The more intense the anxiety and the physical symptoms associated with it, the easier it becomes to notice them.
Bodily Sensations & Noticeability of Social Anxiety
Another important aspect to keep in mind are the internal bodily sensations and the physical arousal of people with social phobia.
Most affected people use their physical arousal as a direct feedback to how well they are doing during a social situation and how they are coming across (Wild, Clark, Ehlers, & McManus, 2008).
However, bodily sensations and arousal are not necessarily good indicators of how well the interaction is going, as our internal states are often not obvious to people around us.
For example, a person may feel very anxious and experience tightness in her chest during a conversation. Yet, her conversation partner is likely to be immersed in the conversation, focusing on what is being said, enjoying an interesting talk.
Many people with social anxiety fall prey to this error of thinking, believing that what they feel is obvious to everyone around them.
In reality, this is often not the case. Once again, it may feel like the anxiety is obvious to everyone around them, when it actually is not – at least not as much as they tend to believe.
- Social anxiety may be noticeable when an affected person is experiencing acute symptoms.
- The anxiety may manifest through visible signs of anxiety (trembling, blushing, sweating, shaky voice, etc.) or through impaired social performance (avoiding eye contact, being reserved, behaving socially inappropriately, etc.).
- While unaffected people may be able to tell that a person is socially anxious, they perceive less of the anxiety than affected people tend to believe, and they rate their social performance better than affected people themselves.
- Feeling and behaving somewhat insecure in certain social situations is quite normal. Therefore, when seeing a person being insecure, most people will not assume that they suffer from a psychological disorder.
If you suffer from social anxiety and wonder what you can do to overcome it, head over to our extensive treatment guide to get a complete overview.
Antony, M. M., Rowa, K., Liss, A., Swallow, S. R., & Swinson, R. P. (2005). Social Comparison Processes in Social Phobia. Behavior Therapy, 36(1), 65–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7894(05)80055-3
Bielak, T., & Moscovitch, D. A. (2013). How do I measure up? The impact of observable signs of anxiety and confidence on interpersonal evaluations in social anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 37(2), 266–276. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9473-4
Eagly, A. H., Ashmore, R. D., Makhijani, M. G., & Longo, L. C. (1991). What is beautiful is good, but…: A meta-analytic review of research on the physical attractiveness stereotype. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 109–128. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.109
Heerey, E. A., & Kring, A. M. (2007). Interpersonal consequences of social anxiety. Journal of abnormal psychology, 116(1), 125–134. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.116.1.125
Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What is the core fear in social phobia? A new model to facilitate individualized case conceptualization and treatment. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 16(2), 123–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2008.04.002
Moscovitch, D. A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2007). When ambiguity hurts: Social standards moderate self-appraisals in generalized social phobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(5), 1039–1052. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2006.07.008
Norton, P. J. and Hope, D. A. (2001). Kernels of Truth or Distorted Perceptions: Self and Observer Ratings of Social Anxiety and Performance. Faculty Publications, Department of Psychology. 882. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/psychfacpub/882
Plasencia, M. L., Alden, L. E., & Taylor, C. T. (2011). Differential effects of safety behaviour subtypes in social anxiety disorder. Behaviour research and therapy, 49(10), 665–675. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2011.07.005
Purdon, C., Antony, M., Monteiro, S., & Swinson, R. P. (2001). Social anxiety in college students. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 15(3), 203–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0887-6185(01)00059-7
Rapee, R. M., & Lim, L. (1992). Discrepancy between self- and observer ratings of performance in social phobics. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(4), 728–731. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.101.4.728
Roth, D., Antony, M. M., & Swinson, R. P. (2001). Interpretations for anxiety symptoms in social phobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(2), 129–138. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(99)00159-X
Weisman, O., Aderka, I. M., Marom, S., Hermesh, H., & Gilboa-Schechtman, E. (2011). Social rank and affiliation in social anxiety disorder. Behaviour research and therapy, 49(6-7), 399–405. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2011.03.010
Wild, J., Clark, D. M., Ehlers, A., & McManus, F. (2008). Perception of arousal in social anxiety: effects of false feedback during a social interaction. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 39(2), 102–116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2006.11.003
Wilson, J. K., & Rapee, R. M. (2005). The interpretation of negative social events in social phobia with versus without comorbid mood disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 19(3), 245–274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2004.03.003
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