Why do the most intelligent segments of our society suffer from a disproportionate level of social anxiety? Why do less intelligent people do better socially?
If you clicked on this article then you probably consider yourself intelligent. You’ve gone through life interested in learning how the world works. You may have shunned the reality tv shows in favour of a good book (aside from the occasional guilty pleasure of course).
The bottom line is that you’ve found most things in life to be understandable. In the past if you’ve encountered a problem or run into something new that threw an obstacle in your way you’ve studied it, figured it out, and discovered a way to get around it.
Except, that is, for social anxiety.
You’ve probably felt it (maybe subconsciously): the feeling of frustration of being unable to figure out social anxiety when you’ve been able to figure out your other problems.
You’re not alone.
Study after study has shown that people who suffer from social anxiety tend to trend more intelligent. There is something about smart people that prevents them from being as comfortable and as skilled in social situations as lower intelligence people.
You know this is true just from life experience!
In a college party which people are more likely to be the centre of the attention? Which people are having the most fun? Have the most girls around them? Is it the academic student who has a scholarship and a GPA that has grad schools salivating? Is it the guy who reads about history because of an overwhelming curiosity about the world?
I’ve felt the same frustration in my teens and early twenties. If I wanted to write a good essay I could study the rubric and other essays and find out the correct formula for writing an essay that would score a high grade. But if I wanted to do well socially the same thing didn’t work! There isn’t a ready to use formula with social interactions.
True story: I spent too long trying to learn routines to use on people. You know how pickup artists use “lines” and “openers”? Well I tried to study the routines of popular people and mimic what they did.
As you can probably guess this didn’t work. It made me look like a weird loser.
The truth is that intelligent people are more likely to have social anxiety for three main reasons:
#1. Intelligent people concentrate on studying social anxiety theoretically rather than building social skills through practice
You’re doing what I used to do. You found my website and this article because you applied the same research skills and tactics that have worked for you in school to your social anxiety problems. When you didn’t know something in school what did you do?
That’s right, you googled it. Or you cracked open a book.
And since that’s worked for you when solving problems in the past you apply the same strategy to social anxiety.
I spent years half-heartedly googling and reading about social anxiety. I watched the videos. I read blog after blog. I deluded myself into thinking I was making progress since I was gathering information.
Intelligent people operate on a simple equation: progress = more information and more education.
But the truth was that it didn’t matter how much information I gathered. I still wasn’t making the friends that I wanted. I didn’t have the relationships I dreamed of. And I wasn’t having the experiences that I craved.
Intelligent people tend to think that all problems can be solved if enough information is known. That’s a good strategy for academia but it’s not a good strategy for social anxiety.
Imagine if you wanted to learn guitar and only read books about music theory? Or only watched videos about playing the guitar? Imagine that you never picked up a guitar- hell imagine if you never even bought a guitar! You just watched video after video and read book after book.
Would you know how to play the guitar if someone suddenly thrust one into your hands?
The answer is an obvious no.
The same is true of social anxiety. If you just read about it and try to understand it academically then you’ll never get rid of it.
The truth: You will never read enough books or enough internet articles to get rid of your social anxiety.
It’s not gonna happen.
In order to play the guitar at some point you need to pick it up and make some noise. At first it will hurt and you’ll sound bad but you’ll build up callouses and skills soon enough.
You need to start building social skills from the bottom up. But we all know how scary it can be starting something new. Especially if that something puts us in front of the judging eyes of other people.
So it’s bad news that:
#2. Intelligent People Are More Aware Of Negative Social Cues
People with social anxiety tend to have something called sentinel intelligence. This is an increased ability to detect threats that are invisible to others.
People who have higher intelligence tend to be more aware of negative social cues. That doesn’t mean that they get more negative social reactions than less intelligent people. It means that they’re simply more aware of the negative reactions.
The person who is more aware of mosquitos is going to have a worse time than the person who ignores them. They’re both going to get attacked by the same number of mosquitos but their experiences will be vastly different.
Since a negative reaction to something that we did is bad and since it’s a possible sign that we’re about to be cut off from the social group we get anxiety. We begin to limit how outgoing we are because the quieter we are the less likely someone will notice us and disapprove of what they see.
(Of course being quiet comes with its own negative social reactions.)
The majority of the population ignores most of the negative reactions they get. If they say something that doesn’t go over well they’ll forget about it pretty quickly. But if a socially anxious person tells a joke that falls flat they’ll remember the blank, solemn faces for weeks, months and sometimes even years.
Intelligent people have an expanded cerebral ability to notice, remember, and analyze negative social experiences.
Your social behaviour is like a mathematical equation. How you act is a result of your previous social experiences. If you’ve had an embarrassing time at a bar in the past you’ll probably avoid going to a bar in the future. If people didn’t laugh at a joke when you told it the first time you’ll not only stop yourself from telling that joke again but you’ll be less likely to tell jokes at all.
Imagine two children who have an identical experience of dropping an ice cream cone on the ground. Except the reaction from the first child’s parents is to yell and scream at the child and drag him home, and the reaction of the second child’s parents is to laugh, confirm that it was an accident, and buy a new ice cream cone.
Would the two children not behave differently in the future? Would the first child not be more afraid of making a mistake or misstep in front of his parents?
You’ve learned from your previous experiences to get anxiety in social situations because you remember a lot of negative experiences and reactions in the past and think you’ll get those reactions once again.
#3. Intelligent Individuals Consider Past And Future Events In Greater Detail
Not only are intelligent people more likely to remember the negative social events in their life but they also consider these events in excruciating detail!
You may spend a considerable amount of time worrying about things that happened in the past or may happen in the future. It’s pretty typical with intelligent people. But is this normal? This comes as a surprise to most people with social anxiety but:
Most people don’t do this.
They don’t. They just don’t. Usually when someone has a negative experience they shrug it off and move on. Not socially anxious people. We’ve got to sit down and replay the event over and over and over again.
This obsession with negative events and the detail to which intelligent people are able to recall them leads to constant worrying and anxiety. We lose sight of the fact that other people are unlikely to even remember that embarrassing moment we’ve spend the past two weeks worrying about. We become convinced that everyone thinks the way we do.
Thankfully they don’t.
Most people don’t care much about the embarrassing happenings of other people’s lives. They don’t even care too much about the embarrassing happenings in their own lives. Once something negative happens in a social interaction most people shrug it off and move on. Soon it is forgotten.
People with social anxiety on the other hand don’t let go. They retain that negative memory and constantly put it into the calculus of their social behaviour. This poisons their social interactions because they’re constantly afraid of reproducing that negative social reaction.
Most people intimately understand that negative reactions from other people are a sign that they’re doing something wrong. Or at least something that is socially frowned upon. This understanding is simply a part of being human. We evolved to constantly survey the moods of those around us to see if our position in the tribe is accepted or not.
However intelligent people take this to an extreme because of their ability to process more information and notice more of the environment around them.
People without social anxiety also notice negative social reactions but their bodies simply flush most of the negative reactions away since they don’t matter too much. They are then free to act in the moment without the burden of the past limiting their actions.
Intelligent people however hang onto all of their negative experiences. All those pent up subconscious memories and feelings act as a moderator on their actions. Smart people are then are forced to filter everything they say through this gigantic web of past experiences and future worries.
Let’s tie it all together.
The only way to get around this system is to accept that you’re going to make mistakes. You need to accept that you’ll say or do things that others will react negatively to.
This is why some people consume great amounts of alcohol whenever they decide to go out. It’s not because they enjoy the taste of beer. It’s because the alcohol gets rid of the filter. It weakens the brain so that it cannot call upon the experiences of the past or the worries of the future.
However you can’t go around drunk all the time. And you don’t have to. You can slowly train yourself to interact without filter. You can train yourself to forget the little social missteps you make.
At first the retraining will require some willpower but you will find that you can become better and better at ignoring the little insignificant social cues soon enough. And you’ll learn to take less seriously a frown or offhand critical remark.
In fact if you went up to someone who had given you a negative social cue and told them how it had made you feel they would likely be puzzled and unable to remember the experience at all! They’ve just flushed it out of their mind.
Social anxiety is a learned behaviour. It is a result of your past experiences. It’s not something that you were born with. It’s not something that you have to die with. You can beat it through deliberate social retraining.
If you enjoyed this article please let me know in the comments below so I know to write more like it. And if you have anything to add on the subject join the discussion. I can guarantee that someone else will find what you have to say helpful.
If you’re ready to start retraining your mind and getting rid of your social anxiety then sign up for my FREE 4 Day Social Anxiety Course. Learn about the fundamentals of social anxiety, what causes it, and how to fix it using a detail and step-by-step system. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on this comprehensive course and will be sending it out in the next couple of weeks.