A previous negative social experience can be a trigger to social phobia.perhaps particularly for individuals high in ‘interpersonal sensitivity’.
For around half of those diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, a specific traumatic or humiliating social event appears to be associated with the onset or worsening of the disorder; this kind of event appears to be particularly related to specific (performance) social phobia, for example regarding public speaking (Stemberg et al., 1995).
As well as direct experiences, observing or hearing about the socially negative experiences of others (e.g. a faux pas committed by someone), or verbal warnings of social problems and dangers, may also make the development of a social anxiety disorder more likely.
Social anxiety disorder may be caused by the longer-term effects of not fitting in, or being bullied, rejected or ignored (Beidel and Turner, 1998).
Shy adolescents or avoidant adults have emphasised unpleasant experiences with peers or childhood bullying or harassment (Gilmartin, 1987).
In one study, popularity was found to be negatively correlated with social anxiety, and children who were neglected by their peers reported higher social anxiety and fear of negative evaluation than other categories of children.
Socially phobic children appear less likely to receive positive reactions from peers and anxious or inhibited children may isolate themselves.
Cultural factors that have been related to social anxiety disorder include a society’s attitude towards shyness and avoidance, affecting ability to form relationships or access employment or education.
One study found that the effects of parenting are different depending on the culture – American children appear more likely to develop social anxiety disorder if their parents emphasize the importance of other’s opinions and use shame as a disciplinary strategy (Leung et al., 1994), but this association was not found for Chinese/Chinese-American children.
In China, research has indicated that shy-inhibited children are more accepted than their peers and more likely to be considered for leadership and considered competent, in contrast to the findings in Western countries.
Purely demographic variables may also play a role – for example there are possibly lower rates of social anxiety disorder in Mediterranean countries and higher rates in Scandinavian countries, and it has been hypothesized that hot weather and high density may reduce avoidance and increase interpersonal contact.
Problems in developing social skills, or ‘social effectiveness’, may be a cause of some social anxiety disorder, through either inability or lack of confidence to interact socially and gain positive reactions and acceptance from others.
The studies have been mixed, however, with some studies not finding significant problems in social skills while others have.
What does seem clear is that the socially anxious perceive their own social skills to be low. It may be that the increasing need for sophisticated social skills in forming relationships or careers, and an emphasis on assertiveness and competitiveness, is making social anxiety problems more common, at least among the ‘middle classes’.
An interpersonal or media emphasis on ‘normal’ or ‘attractive’ personal characteristics has also been argued to fuel perfectionism and feelings of inferiority or insecurity regarding negative evaluation from others. The need for social acceptance or social standing has been elaborated in other lines of research relating to social anxiety.
A long-accepted evolutionary explanation of anxiety is that it reflects an in-built ‘fight or flight’ system, which errs on the side of safety.
One line of research suggests that specific dispositions to monitor and react to social threats may have evolved, reflecting the vital and complex importance of social living and social rank in human ancestral environments.
Charles Darwin originally wrote about the evolutionary basis of shyness and blushing, and modern evolutionary psychology and psychiatry also addresses social phobia in this context.
It has been hypothesized that in modern day society these evolved tendencies can become more inappropriately activated and result in some of the cognitive ‘distortions’ or ‘irrationalities’ identified in cognitive-behavioral models and therapies.