What are causes of Social Anxiety Disorder?

  • As with any trait common to humans, it can be assumed that the trait served some evolutionary purpose, that is, it enhanced individual survival and/or facilitated procreation. Evolutionary psychology is based on the premise that genetic predisposition is determined by what has proven beneficial over generations of humans and human predecessors (Shackelford, & Duntley, 2008). Gazzaniga indicated that “we have thousands, if not millions, of wired-in predilections for various actions and choices” (2011, p. 44). Social conditioning over those generations has contributed to the determination of that genetic predisposition. Those whose traits are superior, or are judged superior by their social order are more likely to procreate (passing on their genes), with that judgement generally being based on having traits that are beneficial to the social order, or otherwise presenting superior physical, mental, and behavioral traits that enhanced survival.

    Those of a species with traits less likely to facilitate procreation will have a tendency to eventually disappear or appear only in a lesser percentage of the population compared to the previous population from hundreds of thousands of years ago, or appear sporadically due to physiological or environmental influences (http://www.whatisepigenetics.com/fundamentals/).

    An example of physiologically adapted traits would be the femininity of the females more considered to be more desirable in a particular culture. In less developed societies, where physical hardship is more evident, women with more masculine attributes are more desired as mates (Pappas, 2014). Conversely, in developed countries, more feminine qualities are judged superior. “Humans may have undergone a self-domestication process in which overly aggressive or despotic others were either ostracized or killed by the group. Thus, the gene pool was modified. … An area of the pre-frontal cortex has actually been found that inhibits self-interested behavior” (Gazzaniga, p. 157).

    Those genetic predispositions are present in the implicit memory system. “Implicit memory systems (subconscious) are fundamentally separate from explicit memory systems (conscious): even when the second one has lost the data the former one has a lock on it” (Eagleman, 2011, p.64). We operate most efficiently when relaxed and functioning on “autopilot,” our subconscious mind. Overriding the subconscious slows us down and may confuse the brain. But our conscious mind is tasked with programming the subconscious mind, which is exemplified by the learning curve when taking on a new task. At first it is difficult, them “muscle memory” is formed that makes the task easier because the need for conscious thought is reduced.

    Subconscious motivations are also not necessarily beyond our control. “Conscious parts of the brain train other parts of the neural machinery, establishing goals and allocating resources” (Eagleman, 2011, p. 70). And, once programmed, “conscious knowledge of the situation … (is) not required for making advantages decisions” (p. 67), meaning that one will not necessarily be consciously aware of how or why a decision is reached within the mind.

    It is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which humans rely on implicit thinking, while foregoing explicit thinking (i.e., conscious, deliberate, and thoughtful judgment). And implicit thought is not necessarily consistent with reality (i.e., what is incontrovertibly true).

    Truth is what exists without justification or interpretation; but, it requires careful observation and accurate conclusions. Recognition of truth must be based on knowledge, accuracy, and logic; but judgment is also a factor; since it has been established empirically that there is a human tendency to mistake perceptions for truth. Judgment is the final step because it is uncommon to have all of the information; therefore, one must judge based on incomplete information. Moreover, judgment is also an trait which has allowed us to survive. However, cultural judgement is not necessarily consistent throughout humanity, therefore deviance varies between cultures.

    As Professor Milton Diamond (2012) indicated “nature loves variety, society hates it.” Variations and mutations are common, whether or not they are passed on depends to a large extent on the benefit or detriment on survival of the individual; which has an effect on procreation; which has an effect on survival of the species./

    Deviance from the social norm is a fact of life, as criminality is known to have existed in all cultures and social orders. Passive anti-social thought can be relatively innocent if it doesn’t affect behavior; however, thought has the tendency to shape behavior (i.e., the concept of Self-fulfilling Prophesy; which is applicable in any human behavior: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychology-writers/201210/using-self-fulfilling-prophecies-your-advantage) that leads to confrontation, with the potential for destructive outcomes. Even some mental disorders can have some positive effect on survivability in some cases. However, Nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim (cited in Cohen & Machalek, 1994/1997) proposed that punishment for deviation helps establish and maintain beneficial and enhances the sense of shared goals and values; conversely, deviance can introduce beneficial social change.

    Specific comments on anxiety are contained here, to include the observation that “anxiety is an emotional response to perceived threat, and allows one to survive an attack by preparing the body for physical confrontation, but it becomes problematic when irrational:”



    Eagleman, D., (2011). Incognito: The secret lives of the brain. New York: Pantheon Books.

    Cohen, L. E., & Machalek, R. (1997). The normalcy of crime: From Durkheim to evolutionary ecology. In M. McShane & F. P. Williams III (Eds.), Criminological theory (pp. 112-134). New York: Garland. [Reprinted from Rationality and society, 6(2), pp. 286-308, April 1994]

    Diamond, M. (2012). Nature Loves Variety, Society Hates It. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MvNisJ7FoQ

    Gazzaniga, M. S. (2011). Who’s in charge: Free will and the science of the brain. New York: HarperCollins.

    Pappas, S. (2014). In harsh conditions, men don’t want a pretty face. Live Science. Retrieved from: http://news.yahoo.com/harsh-conditions-men-dont-want-pretty-face-230237617.html

    Shackelford, T. K. , & Duntley, J. D. (2008). Evolutionary forensic psychology. Duntley, J. D., & Shackelford, T. K. (Eds.). Evolutionary forensic psychology: Darwinian foundations of crime and law. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Dr. David Eagleman directed the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, Baylor College of Medicine and is now at Stanford University.

    Dr. Michael Gazzaniga is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he heads the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, and is the Director of the Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience, and President of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute. His career has included beginning and developing Centers for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of California-Davis and Dartmouth, and founding the Neuroscience Institute and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, of which he is the Editor-in-Chief.

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