Evolution and social anxiety. The role of attraction, social competition, and social hierarchies
Gilbert P.
Mental Health Research Unit,
Department of Clinical Psychology,
Kingsway Hospital, Derby, United Kingdom.
Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2001 Dec;24(4):723-51.


If human social anxiety is not predominately about the fear of physical injury or attack, as it is in other animals, then, to understand human social anxiety (i.e., fear of evaluation), it is necessary to consider why certain types of relationships are so important. Why do humans need to court the good feelings of others and fear not doing so? And why, when people wish to appear attractive to others (e.g., to make friends, date a desired sexual partner, or give a good presentation), do some people become so overwhelmed with anxiety that they behave submissively and fearfully (which can be seen as unattractive) or are avoidant? This article has suggested that humans have evolved to compete for attractiveness to make good impressions because these are related to eliciting important social resources and investments from others. These, in turn, have been linked to inclusive fitness and have physiological regulating effects. Being allocated a low social rank or ostracized carries many negative consequences for controlling social resources and physiological regulation. Social anxiety, like shame, can be adaptive to the extent that it helps people to "stay on track" with what is socially acceptable and what is not and could result in social sanction and exclusion. However, dysfunctional social anxiety is the result of activation of basic defensive mechanisms (and modules for) for threat detection and response (e.g., inhibition, eye-gaze avoidance, flight, or submission) that can be recruited rapidly for dealing with immediate threats, override conscious wishes, and interfere with being seen as a "useful associate." Second, this article has suggested that socially anxious people are highly attuned to the competitive dynamics of trying to elicit approval and investment from others but that they perceive themselves to start from an inferior (i.e., low-rank) position and, because of this, activate submissive defensives when attempting to present themselves as confident, able, and attractive to others. These submissive defenses (which evolved to inhibit animals in low-rank positions from making claims on resources or up-rank bids) interfere with confident performance, leading to a failure cycle. While psychological therapies may target specific modules, cognitions, and behaviors (e.g., damage limitation behaviors, eyes gaze avoidance, theory of mind beliefs) that underpin social anxiety, drugs may work by having a more generalized effect on the threat-safety balance such that there is a different "weighting" given to various social threats and opportunities. If social anxiety (and disorders associated with it) are increasing in the modern age, one reason may be invigorated competition for social prestige, attractiveness, and resources.
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