Social anxiety disorder is a marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny and negative evaluation of others. The social situations almost always provoke fear or anxiety, and the social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety (American Psychiatric Association 2013).
Other people have been our primary psychological selection forces. As species, hominins were selected socially and sexually, and as such, other people have both been our primary competitors and our greatest resources. We are therefore especially interested in evaluating other people, considering their emotional states, their personality traits, and considering what resources or threats they might be for us.
The need to socially belong is one of the fundamental human motivations (Baumeister and Leary 1995). Hence, we would expect the evolution of psychological adaptations that regulate and express this desire in adaptive ways. Social fear and anxiety might serve the function of inhibiting social behaviors that put humans at social risks, for example, by inhibiting other aspects of human nature, such as mate poaching, stealing, cheating, and murdering. Fear of social sanctions might adaptively inhibit these behaviors (Buss 1990).
For an hyper social species such as humans, losing the support of others or being disliked by other people in our group would have been devastating to our ancestors’ fitness (Buss 1990). Ostracism would probably result in becoming an evolutionary dead end. Fear of negative evaluation is therefore not surprisingly something that concerns many, if not most, people. Fear of negative evaluation is naturally the hallmark of social anxiety disorder. However, only 12.1% of the US population develops debilitating symptoms that warrant a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder during their lifetime (Kessler et al. 2005). Furthermore, The risk is higher for females, and the disorder typically has an early onset, often beginning in childhood or early adolescence (Stein and Stein 2008).
Different Theories of the Evolution of Social Anxiety Disorder
Öhman (1986) proposed one of the earliest, and most comprehensive, models of social anxiety disorder from an evolutionary perspective. His perspective is that we are prepared through selection to fear specific stimuli. In the case of social anxiety, the stimuli are dominant and aggressive conspecifics. Angry faces are therefore important social stimuli. Social anxiety is therefore considered part of a prepared submissiveness learning system.
Trower and Gilbert (1989) also proposed a model of social anxiety in which people evaluate conspecific threats, and that activates a dominance hierarchy mind set. This means that humans have psychological adaptations that assess and protect against hostility from others with submission and appeasement. The idea is hence that social anxiety reduces the chance that social conflicts will escalate into fitness-damaging violence and catastrophic social exclusion. This theory shares some foundations with the social competition hypothesis of depression, namely, to protect against aggression from others.
Finally, Stein and Bouwer (1997) suggested the false appeasement theory of social phobia, which also is about defending against social aggression from others. In this model, social phobia is considered to result from severely exaggerated appeasement displays, especially blushing, when such is not called for by the social context. Social anxiety is hence viewed as a dysregulated activation of otherwise adaptive features.
Leary and Jongman-Sereno (2014) provide an update of one of the most developed accounts of social anxiety disorder from an evolutionary perspective, based on self-presentation theory. This perspective expects social anxiety to be elicited when people are not confident that they will be able to make the desired good impression on others. The self-presentation perspective may be extended with sociometer theory, where the relational value of others needs to be considered, when predicting when a social context elicits social anxiety.
General Discussion of the Theories
Most of the theories above are based on normal social anxiety being an adaptive, social relationship regulating mechanism, while full-blown social anxiety disorder is a harmful dysfunction. This might be true. However, people seem to be popular even when very low on social anxiety. The social dominance aspect might therefore be relevant, a position most of these approaches promote. The problem of the above theories is largely a lack of correspondence with how social anxiety presents. If the adaptive value of social anxiety is to prevent social ostracism, then we should not find extroverts more socially attractive, and socially anxious people should not be excluding themselves from society and their in-group by having fewer relationships, marrying later, having less education, and receiving fewer promotions. It is important to note that there is little evidence that people who reduce their social anxiety run the risk of social attacks or exclusion. Reducing safety behaviors improves social functioning; avoidance promotes continued anxiety. There is therefore little evidence of adaptive value to current social anxiety disorder (Kennair 2007). The lack of empirical work to convert these theories into practical and evidence-based mental health interventions is a general problem within evolutionary clinical psychology.
Further, as we saw in the introduction, social anxiety disorder is by no means a human universal, which we would expect if social anxiety disorder were in itself an evolved adaptation. Most people do not experience these symptoms during all of their life, even though the social situations that tend to activate crippling fears in people with social anxiety disorder are part of the general human experience.
A Cognitive Therapy Approach
None of the current evolutionary theories of social anxiety disorder have made it fully into mainstream clinical theorizing or practice; they are more or less familiar as just-so stories with little practical value. Current effective treatments such as Clark and Wells (1995) cognitive model stress how patients create exaggerated negative images of themselves based on the introception of anxiety symptoms. The patient thereafter assumes that peers will evaluate them negatively due to how they appear. To reduce the impact of the anxiety symptoms, patients engage in unhelpful symptom concealing and safety behaviors, including social avoidance. Reducing safety behaviors and providing patients with more realistic feedback of how they appear seem to reduce symptoms efficiently. In addition, the therapist helps the patient discontinue worry about how one appeared in social situations. People with less social anxiety worry less about negative evaluation of others. A normal interest in how others perceive oneself is probably helpful for socially intelligent interaction with others; overly negative assumptions about how others perceive one based on faulty perception and worry are probably not adaptive. Evolutionary approaches might become more relevant if they incorporate the functional knowledge about maintaining mechanisms and efficient treatment within mainstream mental health care.
It is likely that many human emotions and motivations have evolved to solve evolutionary problems that inevitably arise when living in groups. The acquisition of social status, mates, friendships, and other alliances requires adaptive regulations of social emotions and behaviors. The adaptive theories of social anxiety may therefore be useful if they generate testable predictions about human nature that can be a key in understanding why people are vulnerable to develop social anxiety disorder.
Different evolutionary approaches to social anxiety disorder have been proposed focusing on the threat of dominant conspecifics and exaggerated appeasement or submission. These have not largely influenced mainstream mental health care or research. Future evolutionary considerations of social anxiety disorder might benefit from addressing the functional models found in efficient therapy.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing.Google Scholar
- Clark, D. M., & Wells, A. (1995). A cognitive model of social phobia. Social Phobia: Diagnosis, Assessment, and Treatment, 41(68), 69–93.Google Scholar
- Öhman, A. (1986). Face the beast and fear the face: Animal and social fears as prototypes for evolutionary analyses of emotion. Psychophysiology, 23(2), 123–145. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8986.1986.tb00608.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar