A new study finds that social anxiety is correlated with increased empathic efforts (tendency to engage in cognitive and affective empathy). Social anxiety is also correlated with accurate perceptions of the emotional states of others, but inversely correlated with accurate perception of the cognitive states of others.
Here's how they measured the tendency to engage in affective and cognitive empathy:
So, as they define it, cognitive empathy is about perspective taking and being able to put oneself into fictional situations. Affective empathy (emotional empathy) is about feeling sympathy, compassion, and personal distress on behalf of others.Both affective and cognitive empathy were further assessed using the Interpersonal Reactive Index (IRI) (35). This instrument consists of four seven-item sub- scales each tapping a separate component of empathy. The perspective taking scale (PT) measures the reported tendency to spontaneously adopt the psychological point of view of others in everyday life. The fantasy scale (FS) measures the tendency to imaginatively transpose oneself into fictional situations. Those two scales are considered to tap the cognitive facet of empathy. On the other hand the two other empathy scales measure an affective facet of empathy: the empathic concern (EC) scale assesses the tendency to experience feelings of sympathy and compassion for others and the personal distress scale (PD) taps the tendency to experience distress and discomfort in response of others’ observed distress. It has been suggested that while the PT and the FS subscales of the IRI assess cognitive empathy, the PD and EC subscales tap affective empathy. Therefore we used the sum of the PT and FS as a cognitive empathy index and the sum of the PD and EC as affective empathy indexes.
The study found:
- Individuals who suffer from social anxiety tend to engage in more empathic efforts (both cognitive and affective) than those without.
- When results are adjusted to factor out general anxiety, people with social anxiety show a higher tendency towards engaging in cognitive empathy, but tended to be less cognitively accurate than those with low social anxiety.
- Despite the above, people with social anxiety tend to be more accurate at reading emotional state than those without.
I found that to be an interesting finding, that people with social anxiety tend to be more affectively empathetic and accurate, but tend to be less cognitively accurate about the state of others despite engaging in cognitive empathy. Why might this be?
Which I found true to life as someone who suffers from sub-clinical social anxiety. Part of maturing process for me has been learning to reduce the tendency to ascribed perceived emotional state as being caused by me or my failings. It sounds oddly self-aggrandizing to say, but with social anxiety one can feel like one's ineptness/terribleness has big effects, even as one may not otherwise feel important or worthwhile.It has been suggested that empathy depends on other-awareness (40), which might be achieved by using one’s own knowledge as the primary basis for understanding others (41). This “self-orientation in service of the other” is consistent with the “simulation” theory (42) according to which we mentally attempt to mimic others’ thought processes and feelings, using our own mental state as a model of theirs. It may be hypothesized that socially anxious individuals are prone to engage in simulation. For example, it has been reported that socially anxious individuals tend to use their own knowledge as a primary basis to gain insight into others’ thoughts (43).
And, to bring typology into things, I've sometimes wondering if my enneagram 5 aspects are in part a defense against social anxiety. Since I tend to feel inept, I want to understand in advance and have thought through anything I show to the world. I also want to understand the mental and emotional states of those around me.
However, I think it's clear that not all 5s suffer from social anxiety (some seem blissfully socially unaware), so certainly other kinds of anxiety may factor in.