Are people with social anxiety preoccupied by social rank?

People with a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder find social situations nerve wracking, from mixing with friends to speaking in public. A number of explanations have been proposed for why they feel this way, including that they are pre-occupied with creating the right impression. A new study makes a related but distinct claim, which is that people with social anxiety are overly concerned with social hierarchy, and struggle with what’s called the affiliative side of relationships. In simple terms this means they tend to perceive social situations as competitive, judging themselves as having low rank compared with other people, and they also have difficulty forming close relationships.

Ora Weisman and her colleagues made their claims after surveying 42 social anxiety disorder clients at a public clinic in Israel and 47 community controls. Potential recruits to the client group were excluded if they had depression, schizophrenia or an addiction problem. Comparing the two groups, the researchers found that the clients with social anxiety tended to report more submissive behaviour (e.g. agreeing to being wrong, even when knowing they were right), saw themselves as having low social rank, were more sensitive to rejection, had less closeness to their friends, and avoided getting too attached to romantic partners.

A second study was similar to the first, except this time the researchers compared clients with a joint diagnosis of social anxiety and depression against clients with an anxiety diagnosis other than social anxiety (e.g. panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder) plus depression. Once again, it was the social anxiety group who scored higher on submissive behaviour, avoidance of attachment, lower perceived social rank and greater rejection sensitivity. Together both studies suggest that social anxiety is associated with these characteristics above and beyond the influence of depression.

Limitations of the study include its reliance on self-report and the fact that clients weren’t followed up over time. This means it’s difficult to tell if the measured characteristics (such as perceiving oneself as having low social rank) are a cause or a consequence of social anxiety.

Weisman and her team said their findings have treatment implications. Therapists should include techniques that focus on negative self-perception, they advised, including the use of video-feedback, and ways to overcome submissive behaviours. This work could extend to reducing the frequency of emotions such as shame and humiliation, they said, which may contribute to clients downplaying their social status. Also the affiliation side should be addressed too, Weisman’s group said: “…issues such as sharing and self-disclosure can help achieve intimacy and closeness with others and reduce social anxiety.”

ResearchBlogging.orgO Weisman, I Aderka, S Marom, H Hermesh, and E Gilboa-Schechtman (2011). Social rank and affiliation in social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2011.03.010

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

6 thoughts on “Are people with social anxiety preoccupied by social rank?”

  1. For me, this is a load of crap. I have battled Social Anxiety Disorder for over 2 decades and it has nothing to do with ranking. It is all about not trusting people. Most of my life, people have caused physical harm to me. That has led to my anxieties, not what others think or where I “rank” in society. I am not that friggin' shallow. I am insulted by this study.

  2. I agree with Uncle J. This doesn't ring true for me at all. In fact, I wouldn't say that I'm all that submissive in social situations. Social anxiety is a heck of a lot more complicated than this study implies.

  3. Why is the BPS telling us about this? A handful of researchers have shown that a tiny group of people with social anxiety act exactly like people with, errrrm, social anxiety. What is more, weak as the research is, all they can tell us is that there is some correlation. How on earth does this then become a recommendation for a therapeutic approach? People with a broken leg tend to limp, but you'd better look to treating the broken leg rather than the limp. Not a good advert for the scientific rigours that Psychology aspires to

  4. This somehow makes people with social anxiety disorder look so shallow. People with SAD are certainly not focused on social ranking. It's their fear of dealing with people especially when they had some horrible experiences like being bullied or cheated on. Please do verify your source before posting an article like this.

  5. For me, one interesting aspect of the study is the idea of negative self perception. One of the very real concerns for me is the idea that others will perceive me negatively – whether that is due to my anxiety showing, or in general. Issues with early trauma and broken trusts key right into that negative self perception given that one's development of identity and of a sense of one's place in the world begins to develop very early, in relationship with family. Regardless of this study, I find it very unlikely that negative self perception is NOT playing a role in the maintenance of SAD symptoms.

  6. I completely agree with this study 100%. Im always worried about coming across badly and i tend to be submissive and put people ahead of me. when are scientist going to find better treatments for social anxiety i have gone though hell with psychologists with CBT and SSRIs that have far more side effects then benefits.

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