Social Anxiety and the Nature and Function of Social Pain
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Humans have a fundamental need to belong that drives many of our present-day emotions and behaviours. When the need to belong becomes threatened, people experience “social pain,” which has been conceptualized as an adaptive alarm signal that can motivate people to restore their sense of security within their social community. The current dissertation examines the impact of social pain on individuals with high trait social anxiety (HSA). Past research has shown that HSAs are less likely to engage in increased affiliative efforts following painful exclusion, and more often exhibit signs of withdrawal or aggression, which may disrupt their ability to effectively restore belongingness. However, little is known about the psychological mechanisms that may link the experience of social pain with negative emotional and behavioural outcomes for HSAs. A series of studies were conducted to investigate whether over-sensitivity to social pain and/or maladaptive appraisals about social threat and reward might impact HSAs’ motivation to initiate or benefit from affiliative repair. Study 1 found that HSAs’ social pain sensitivity was pervasive and not limited to contexts in which they experienced an explicit, relational rupture, suggesting HSAs’ threat biases may inhibit their ability to recognize and act upon social opportunities to reconnect after facing a painful exclusion. Consistent with this interpretation, Study 2 found that HSAs experienced down-regulated affiliative desire in the face of social pain. Results suggested that social opportunities that are pursued in the aftermath of heightened social pain may be attractive because they introduce emotional rewards such as heightened positive affect; however, only those individuals with low, but not high trait SA appeared motivated to pursue such rewards following a painful exclusion. This idea was further tested in Study 3, which replicated Study 2 data showing that participants responded to the pain of exclusion with heightened desire to affiliate and greater downstream positive affect, and extended Study 2 by revealing that this process was driven by increased curiosity and attention to social rewards. HSA participants in Study 3 reported lower curiosity, reward sensitivity, desire for affiliation, and positive affect, irrespective of their reported levels of social pain. Furthermore, diminished reward sensitivity accounted for HSAs’ low desire for affiliation, whereas heightened threat sensitivity did not. These data align with current theories that suggest low reward sensitivity is a distinct symptom-maintaining feature of social anxiety disorder (SAD) that interferes with approach motivation. Implications are discussed from the perspective of learning and memory models that inform SAD symptom maintenance and treatment.
Cite this version of the work
Taylor Hudd (2022). Social Anxiety and the Nature and Function of Social Pain. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/18497