UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Social anxiety and empathy Auyeung, Karen Wei


Individuals with high levels of social anxiety often have difficulty developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships (Alden & Taylor, 2004). Researchers have uncovered many of the negative cognitive and behavioural processes that mediate the relationship between social anxiety and relationship difficulties (e.g., Baker & Edelmann, 2002; Stopa & Clark, 1993) however, relatively little research has investigated the relationship between social anxiety and the basic social and emotional processes that facilitate positive relational functioning (Lochner et al., 2003; Schneier et al., 1994). One such factor is the ability to empathize with the emotional and cognitive experience of others. The link between social anxiety and empathy has not been examined. In this study, 121 undergraduate participants observed videos of individuals discussing high school events in which they were either socially included or excluded. Participants rated the positive and negative emotions the target individuals were feeling while discussing the events. The absolute discrepancy between participants’ and targets’ emotion ratings was used as a measure of empathic accuracy. This study produced preliminary evidence that socially anxious individuals demonstrate greater accuracy at empathizing with others’ negative affect. This finding however, appears to be specific to negative social experiences such as exclusion, and only occurs when the viewer themselves is experiencing a degree of social pain or social scrutiny. There was also partial evidence that socially anxious individuals perceive more negative affect in comparison to how others’ rate themselves. This result was only found in participants in the social threat experimental condition, suggesting that negative cognitive biases may be activated when socially anxious individuals feel anxious and/or socially scrutinized. These results provide continuing support for research on empathy gaps for social pain.

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