Take a group of 18- and 19-year-old women, college freshmen and sophomores. Then test them to find out who has the most social anxiety: who’s most nervous about dealing with other people, particularly in public situations. What would be the most difficult thing you could ask these high-social-anxiety women to do? How about this:
I would like you to prepare and deliver a four-minute talk. This talk will be videotaped and viewed later by several professors and graduate students…. It is extremely important that you do the best job that you can with this talk…. Your talk should be about the most difficult time in your life and how you coped with it.
Now, give them five minutes to prepare, and allow their boyfriends to “help.”
That’s what a team led by J. Gayle Beck did; their goal was to see how socially anxious women and their romantic partners handled a difficult social situation. They asked women with low social anxiety and their partners to do the same task; 45 women in all participated. Of course, what the researchers were really interested was to see how the couples interacted while they prepared the speeches; in the end none of the women had to give a speech, and they were told their preparation session had been videotaped and would be analyzed for insights into how their relationship worked.
You might think that highly socially anxious women (which I’ll abbreviate as HSA) would be more distressed about this than women with low social anxiety (which I’ll abbreviate as LSA). You might also think that HSA women who weren’t satisfied with their relationships would show more have more negative interactions with their partners than HSA women who were satisfied. And you’d probably speculate that if the boyfriends of HSA women made negative comments or behaved negatively during the preparations, that HSA women would show even more distress.
Beck’s team predicted all three of these results, and were surprised to find that none of the predictions were supported by the study. They studied all the videos and rated the women along three dimensions:
- Positive: Specific analysis of the problem, statement of feelings, asking for help, positive response to helper
- Negative: Demanding help, criticizing, blaming, accusing, rejecting helper, whining, complaining
- On Task: Staying focused on the assignment.
The boyfriends were rated on a similar scale.
The researchers could find no significant differences in behavior between the HSA and LSA women or their partners when the results were averaged across all participants in a group. But when each group was divided into subgroups of high- and low-satisfaction with their relationships, a significant difference was observed. Among high-satisfaction women, HSA women showed significantly more negative behavior than LSA women.
The researchers speculate that women who are satisfied with their relationships may fell more secure expressing their emotions when they are nervous or anxious. Since the LSA women probably weren’t as anxious about the speech, they had no reason to show any signs of discomfort, but HSA women did. HSA women who were unsatisfied with their relationships, on the other hand, were not comfortable sharing their anxiety with their partners.
And what about when the boyfriends behaved negatively? Again unexpectedly, HSA women behaved more negatively when their boyfriends behaved more positively to them. Among low-social anxiety women, there was no difference in behavior regardless of how their boyfriends behaved. Why did the highly-anxious women behave worse when their boyfriends were being nice?
Beck’s team believes that these women are more comfortable behaving negatively because they know their boyfriends are supportive. The women with unsupportive boyfriends don’t respond in kind because they feel they will only get more negative responses back from them.
GAYLEBECK, J., DAVILA, J., FARROW, S., & GRANT, D. (2006). When the heat is on: Romantic partner responses influence distress in socially anxious women Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44 (5), 737-748 DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2005.05.004