This post is a follow-up to a conversation Winter Dragonflies and I were having about different mental errors that can feed into social anxiety. We all have a natural set of cognitive biases that can result in mental errors, so I wanted to take a look at what some of those might be.
Cognitive biases are a way for our brains to be more efficient, but that efficiency comes at a cost of skewed appraisals of the world around us. Interpreting these as representing absolute truth can feed into social anxiety, self-doubt, and all that kind of fun stuff.
The way we focus our attention affects what we perceive in the environment around us. People with anxiety tend to have attentional bias that’s skewed in favour of noticing threat-related cues rather than reward-related cues.
The belief bias involves evaluating the strength of an argument based on how much you believe its conclusion rather than the strength of the arguments.
If you believe something negative about yourself, and someone gives you feedback that points at something contrary to what you believe, it won’t matter how they arrived at the conclusion they’re presenting you with, because you don’t believe where that line of thought ends up.
Confirmation bias means we actively seek out, believe, and focus on information that confirms the beliefs we already have.
If you go into a social situation where you expect people to think you’re a loser because you’re going to do something loserish, you will pay attention to things that confirm your loserishness and ignore anything that suggests you’re totally rocking it.
Illusion of transparency
We tend to overestimate how well people can tell what we’re thinking, and also how well we can tell what they’re thinking. So those subtle cues that make you sure they think you’re an imposter? You actually know no such thing.
Illusory truth effect
The illusory truth effect refers to our tendency to estimate things as more believable the more often we see them.
I’m making a bit of a leap here, but close enough. Neural connections are strengthened or weakened based on use. The analogy I like to use is a trail in the forest. If you don’t use it very often, you have to bushwhack your way through each time and it’s a lot of work. If you use it frequently, you’ve pretty much built a freeway through your forest. Getting extra-snug and cozy with anxious thoughts that pop up is like doing some extra bulldozing along the side of your forest freeway to have room to install some billboards that say everyone knows you’re a screw-up, so you might as well quit trying.
Our caveman ancestors needed to pay attention to what the lions and tigers were doing, because of the whole getting eaten business. There was a survival advantage in paying attention to the negative. That’s hardwired into our brains, even though it’s not so necessary these days.
When you’re in a social situation, you’re naturally keeping an eye out for the lion, tiger, or person who will realize that you’re, well, you rather than the “normal” person you’re masked up to be.
One of the reasons clinical trials use blinding is that if the researcher or patient expect a certain outcome, they’ll unconsciously do things to influence that outcome. This is called the observer-expectancy effect.
If you’re going into a social situation expecting to be humiliated, your mind will do what it can to deliver.
We like to have a stable sense of self, whatever that sense of self might be. Self-verification is our tendency to seek verification from others that we are who we think we are. Even if you see yourself negatively, you want to be around people who recognize you for the loser that you think you are.
Bias blind spot
All of these cognitive biases we’ve talked about? Your mind’s natural tendency is to underestimate that bias, and assume you’re objective in your self-loserishness assessments.
Just because the mind likes to play tricks doesn’t mean we can’t call bullshit on it. Recognizing that just because something is in your head doesn’t make it accurate is somewhere to start.
Do any of these ring true for you, whether that be in regards to social anxiety or anything else?