When you think about what makes you anxious in life, social events are likely to feature prominently. Public speaking, meeting new people, and competing with others make many of us wince with an awkward pain. We have anxieties about what can go wrong for good reasons: loneliness is a killer, and weak social networks can prevent us from making progress.
Fear of embarrassment may be one of the primary emotional drivers that make us nervous about joining or speaking to a new group of people. We don’t want to be that person standing alone at the party and we don’t want our reputations destroyed by a hasty comment that came out wrong. Generally speaking, two things need to come together to cause embarrassment. The first is a failure according to our personal standards (e.g. falling over or saying something stupid). The second is a social setting in which we know others may be judging us. When you look at the brain while someone is embarrassed, you find activity in exactly the areas of the brain that are most relevant for these functions: emotional arousal areas like the anterior insula that are linked to the experience of personal failure, and ‘mentalizing’ areas like the medial prefrontal cortex that are involved in understanding what other people may be thinking about us.
When we end up in the unfortunate position of social reject, the emotional pain we experience is not so different to the physical pain from a burn. Both are deeply uncomfortable, highly aversive, and both make me want to jump into a large bucket of ice water to numb the pain. In fact, there is striking similarity between the two types of pain in how the brain treats them. They both activate parts of the brain important for processing physical sensations on the body (like the posterior insula and somatosensory cortex). When you really zoom in to look at those areas in more detail, you may be able to detect differences in the precise patterns of activation within them, depending on the type of pain. After all, the two experiences are not entirely identical and we are still very capable of distinguishing them. But there is no getting around it: when we feel socially rejected, it hurts like hell. Whether a romantic partner has called for a hiatus, or we’ve embarrassed ourselves in front of an audience, the brain knows exactly which systems to recruit in order to make it as excruciating as it needs to be.
If some of my previous accounts of personal and general brain-hating haven’t already made it clear, we are vulnerable to errors in our perceptions and thinking patterns. So maybe there are times when we misread how others feel about us. In a refreshingly simple recent experiment, researchers put two strangers into a room, gave them a few ice-breakers, and asked them to chat. They then pulled the couple apart and surveyed them individually on how they felt about the other person, and how they believed the other person felt about them. People consistently underestimated how much the other person liked them, and the researchers called this ‘the liking gap’. This gap in how we think other people feel about us, and how they actually feel, can persist for months after we meet someone, and it holds true whether the conversations we had were 2 minutes or 45 minutes long.
It’s almost as though we are utterly determined to believe that other people have a problem with us, even in the absence of any evidence to support that belief. The effect may be driven by an excessively critical review of our own performance after an interaction with a new person. We judge our own conversational quality more negatively than we judge other people’s. We dwell too long on small details that might have been mistakes and might have annoyed or offended our conversational partner, and don’t pay enough attention to how they reacted perfectly happily or normally to everything we said. Perhaps this self-critical attitude drives us to improve and become better company in the long run. Or perhaps it needlessly upsets and embarrasses us, and makes us hesitant to meet new people in the future. That’s for you to decide.
We are gregarious creatures, so friends provide some of the biggest excitements and joys that life has to offer. It’s a good idea to carefully monitor our behavior and make sure we present our best selves when we meet new people. But much of the time, we have a habit of reading the situation poorly. In typical conversations, the pressure to be liked can overwhelm our rationality and distort our judgments about what other people are thinking. When we next conclude that a conversation was a failure, it might be worth a second thought. And even when we really do suffer a social rejection, there may be silver linings we can cling to, like the opportunity to use our emotional reactions and sense of independence as inspiration to be creative (and there are other ways to maximize your creativity too). Aren’t all the best love songs about breakups?