6 Scientific Solutions To Your Crippling Social Anxiety
Whether it's replying "you too" when a waiter tells you to enjoy your meal, holding a door for somebody just slightly too far away, or literally any conversation with a hairdresser, we all suffer from the occasional moment of social awkwardness. Luckily, science can explain away most of those worries, which we're sure will come as great comfort to you the next time you ask a woman when she's due and she replies, "I'm not pregnant."
Your Brain Is Hardwired To Believe Everyone Is Looking At You
Oh God, everybody's staring at you. What did you do? Do you have something on your face? Have you suddenly become deaf to the sound of your own farting? Oh holy shit, are you farting right now, you need to go, you need to-
"Where is he going? Did I fart? Oh holy shit, am I farting right now? I need to go, I need to-"
If you relate to that scenario, know that all the attention on you is probably in your head. Science has shown that our brains are hardwired to assume that people are staring at us, even if they're just kind of vaguely looking in our direction. Researchers at the University of Sydney did a study in which they had volunteers look at photographs of faces to determine which way they were looking. In cases where the answer wasn't obvious -- like, the image was blurry or they were wearing sunglasses -- the participants tended to assume by default that the face was staring directly at them.
She's actually looking at the ghost behind you.
And that's not even the biggest dick move your paranoid brain pulls on you. It turns out that even when people are looking in your direction, your self-conscious mind misinterprets their expression. In another study, researchers showed the participants video clips of faces displaying either emotional or neutral expressions. When asked to describe how they thought the people in the images were feeling, people who rated highly for anxiety tended to report more emotion in neutral faces.
"Ohmygod, he's gonna bite me on the face!"
But even if everybody is staring at you, all the time, judging you with their eyes, you shouldn't panic because ...
You Need Eyes On You To Change Yourself For The Better
Say you're an introvert who wants to be more outgoing. (You? the Cracked reader? Say it ain't so!) The best way to actually achieve this isn't to believe in yourself -- that's some hippy-dippy PSA crap -- it's to trick other people into believing that you're already more outgoing than you actually are. Science has shown that if people have an opinion about you, then your actual personality will often change to reflect that.
Researchers asked a group of participants to sit down and record two interviews on camera. In one, they were instructed to answer a set of questions about themselves as an introvert, and in the other, to answer the same questions as an extrovert. They were then told that a person sitting outside in the waiting area would be coming in next to view one of those tapes, but they didn't know which one until the recording was finished.
"Don't worry, this isn't a sex thing. We can almost guarantee it."
At the end of the session, they sent each of the participants outside to sit next to the person who would be viewing the tape, then watched to see how they interacted. What they discovered was that, regardless of how outgoing the test subject actually was, they sat closer to the person and were more sociable with them if they believed that they were about to watch the extrovert tape. And the opposite was true if they thought they were going to watch the one where the subject mumbled into their lap the whole time. Add all that nonsense up, and it means, for any change in your personality to stick, you need to be accountable to other people. Change doesn't come from within, it comes from the burning, expectant gaze of the people around you.
Talking To Strangers Is More Rewarding Than You Think
The first conversation with a stranger is always a bunch of pointless warbling over trivial bullshit, right? Oh, how do you feel about the weather? Sure are some sports, huh? Cars make traffic, right, buddy? Well, science got curious about how rewarding conversations with strangers actually are, versus the existential dread that many of us feel about the possibility that the cab driver is going to tell us his opinions. Over a series of studies, subjects were made to have a conversation with either a complete stranger or their romantic partner. Surprisingly, the interactions with the stranger were much more rewarding than any of the participants expected.
"Hmmm ... keep those names for the 'Signs Of Divorce' study next week. Just in case."
Later, scientists ambushed commuters on trains and buses, forcing them to choose between connecting with a random stranger or sitting alone. Everyone expected the 'sit alone' option to be more enjoyable. But those brave souls who decided to stop brutally crushing candy and talk to somebody ended up rating the experience much more favorably than those who kept to themselves.
"It's so nice to be able to vent to someone about how annoying those scientists are!"
So actually, you should totally talk to strangers whenever you can. If we've told you once, we've told you a thousand times: Your mother is full of shit.
Worry And Self Control Take From The Same Pool Of Brain Resources
The same fuel that you use to interact with other human beings on a day-to-day basis is also spent on worrying about whether or not that thing the Starbucks barista said to you was a veiled insult. Worrying about what other people think about you actually drains the resources you need to carry on like a normal person without snapping and telling one of your clients to eat a bowl of dick soup.
"It pairs delightfully with a side of deez."
To prove it, researchers put people in a social setting with a bunch of strangers and asked them to either behave normally, or to act like narcissistic assholes and constantly talk themselves up. Then they did some tests to find out exactly how many fucks the test subjects had left to give after the experiment. It turned out that those who had been instructed to step out of their comfort zone and be more boastful to a room full of strangers had more difficulty answering math problems, and even had less of a reaction when showed an emotional film. They'd been placed in a high-pressure situation, and it used up all of their brain fuel.
When low on these resources, we recommend refueling without delay.
The solution is simple: Just stop worrying about stuff. Unless, of course, that just makes you worried about how much you're worrying, and creates a feedback loop of panic that will cause you to explode in a fireball of stammering awkwardness. Then you're pretty much fucked. But try not to worry about that, too ...
Making New Friends Is Easier Than You Think
Researchers asked subjects talk to each other in a crowded classroom for 45 minutes, using a set of assigned questions, which were either harmless small talk or more personal stuff like, "When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?" and "When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?"
The line between "personal stuff" and "veiled threat" is a fine one.
One study group matched partners like dating websites do, putting people together who wouldn't disagree on any major issues. Another jammed people together willy-nilly. Some were informed that the matches had been prearranged, others were told no such thing. Weirdly, it didn't matter much whether participants disagreed on important issues, or whether they expected to like each other -- about 90 percent of participants reported a positive interaction.
That's even correcting for the socially awkward participants too embarrassed to report otherwise.
An editor for Wired decided to do an impromptu replicative study in 2011, using a number of business founders, executives, and creatives as subjects. Same results! So it turns out that, even when we wildly disagree with one another about the very foundations of society, we can still interact positively. In person. It's still utterly impossible on the Internet, of course.
You're Better At Conversing Than You Think
The worst part about having a conversation with someone new is all those awkward silences. It must be you, right? You're such an asshole that you can't even talk to another person for 10 minutes without poisoning the air with your own toxic awkwardness.
"Poisoning? Oh holy shit, am I farting right now? I need to go, I need to-"
If that's you, it may surprise you to learn that the anxiety is every bit as real for the person you're talking to, and that all of this is completely normal. Scientific investigation has shown that the average conversation contains around 10 awkward silences per minute. This number includes all the times you break to say "Uhh ..." or "Um ..." while your brain frantically scrambles to complete the sentence you began. This proves that it isn't a result of your personal ineptitude to conversation -- it's the baseline level of awkwardness for all of humanity.
If someone doesn't say "um," they're an alien spy.
The news gets better. As it turns out, those awkward pauses actually make you seem more normal and even more trustworthy to other people -- so much so that programmers who are building robots to mimic human conversation are considering incorporating awkward pauses and filled silences like "um" in between sentences in order to make computers sound more human. 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been a bit less chilling if HAL's signature line had been "I'm sorry, um, I can't ... I can't actually let you, uh, let you do that, Dave. Sorry. Sorry!"
Some of Andrew's friends have started up a pop culture/beer connoisseur podcast called "Pass Priority" that you should check out. Andrew writes fiction -- his pulp fantasy story "Clusterfuck" will be published in July.
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