Friday, November 6, 2009

Social Anxiety Disorder in a milder form

"Social Anxiety Disorder" is a descriptive enough name that I don't have to list its symptoms in detail. Basically, people with this disorder experience a high level of anxiety in social situations in which most other people feel much more comfortable.

Try to imagine what this must feel like. It's possible that some of these feelings are already familiar to you to a lesser degree. Maybe going to a party where you don't know anybody makes you anxious.

Overcoming these feelings serves the obvious purpose of eased social interaction for our own sake, but there's another set of scenarios where the skills of being comfortable in unfamiliar social settings is very valuable. Let's consider the case of Kitty Genovese. You may have heard of her famous case.

In 1964, she was stabbed to death, in a series of attacks that spanned over roughly half an hour, where the perpetrator returned several times to make sure she was dead. His confidence to return seemed to come from the fact that nobody seemed to have reported the attack, despite screams and cries.

Naturally, there was a big furor over this: dozens of citizens had seen or heard bits of the attack, but nobody took decisive action to stop it. It turns out the media significantly exaggerated the facts, and in fact several people did call police or try to scare off the perp. The majority of others reported that they took the screams as coming from just another late night reveler in NYC, or else probably didn't see enough of what was going on to have sufficient reason to react.

The events surrounding her case were studied by social psychologists, who developed the study of "bystander intervention." As described in the wikipedia article on her case, some of the conclusions about why onlookers often fail to act suggest traits of human nature that are reminiscent of those we described above:
The reasons include the fact that onlookers see that others are not helping either, that onlookers believe others will know better how to help, and that onlookers feel uncertain about helping while others are watching.
Think about the last two in particular. Have you ever been in a social setting where you just assume that others know better how to behave "correctly?" How about the feeling of not wanting to look like that meddlesome guy or gal, offering help when others can "obviously" tell that no help is actually needed?

It seems to me that some of the key characteristics of a person who might be described as "the life of the party" coincide with those who are willing to step up and take responsibility when nobody else around is.

So, the next time you're at a party and feeling a little uncomfortable or awkward, and you need a little courage to break the ice, try to remember this. Others may witness your courage to be a little forward, and in their eyes perhaps you'll be the one who's "in the know" about how to act. Who knows, maybe that'll bring you one step closer to being a hero someday.


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