In addition to being a necessary (if awkward) component of romantic life, the first date can also be one of the most anxiety-provoking. Facing off over that infinite chasm of a white tablecloth, each member of a couple will inevitably be afflicted by a million troubled thoughts, including, “Is my date even attractive?” “Am I even attractive?” and “Did I remember to turn off the stove before I left the house?”
Presumably, the primary aim of this lamentable endeavor is to establish some sort of interpersonal connection. Unfortunately, though, new research in social psychology suggests that the creeping apprehension a first date may arouse could undermine people’s ability to form just this sort of empathic bond. Anxiety, this research shows, uniquely interferes with “perspective-taking”—that is, people’s capacity to put themselves in others’ shoes.
The idea that anxiety impairs perspective-taking is important because it is just this sort of nervousness that crops up when an empathic connection is most sorely needed. A public speaking gig, a job interview, even the act of teaching a child to read: all require a nuanced understanding of what it’s like to be the other person in the room. So by allowing anxiety to occupy our thoughts we might actually be undercutting our odds of success at the most critical social moments.
A team of researchers, led by Andrew R. Todd at the University of Iowa, performed a series of experiments in which they artificially elevated people’s anxiety by asking them to recount, in vivid detail, an anxiety-provoking event that had happened in their past. Those in control conditions, by contrast, were asked to write about neutral events, such as how they typically spend their evenings, or about negative ones, such as those eliciting disgust or anger.
Next, the experimenters presented participants with a variety of tasks designed to assess their ability (or willingness) to perspective-take. In the first experiment, participants were shown a photograph of a person sitting at a table with a book to his left hand side (and, by logic, to their right). The key question was, “On which side of the table is the book?” While more than half of non-anxious people said the book was on the left side (implying they had taken the person’s perspective), only about a quarter of anxious people did, suggesting there is something about anxiety that locks people into their own point of view. (The lesson here: don’t start off a first date with an argument over who is closer to the salt.)
Of course there is, in fairness, no right answer to this question, as the book may correctly be said to be sitting on either side of the table. To dig deeper, therefore, the investigators carried out a follow-up study to see if anxious people could un-know information they knew others didn’t have. The study worked like this. Subjects learned of an incoming college freshman named Nick who asks his friend David, a sophomore, whether he should take a class with Professor Jones. Nick doesn’t know it, but the professor had been rude to David in the past. David writes Nick back: “Oh yeah, Professor Jones is a real nice guy.” Participants are asked to decide whether Nick interprets David’s e-mail as sarcastic or sincere.
Note the tricky task people are being asked to do here: they are not being asked to say whether they think David’s e-mail is sarcastic or sincere; they are being asked to say whether Nick thinks it is. Nick, of course, doesn’t know about David’s altercation with the professor, so he has no reason to detect sarcasm. People who are adept at imagining others’ thoughts should realize this. People who are less so may not.
The result? Anxious people were more likely to believe Nick would see the message as sarcastic, even though it was only they, and not Nick, who knew David had had a negative experience. This further supports the idea that anxiety, more so than anger or disgust, blinds people to others’ experiences.
The lessons from this research extend far beyond the notion that an edgy first date likely won’t end up back at someone’s apartment. From a broader perspective, it seems that anxiety-inducing social situations are also (ironically) the ones that most demand our empathy. Consider the classic example of the strained family reunion, in which close relatives assemble for what everyone hopes will be a warm and celebratory affair only to succumb to anger and quarreling as the micro-assaults on people’s patience and sensibilities take their toll. What engenders this devolution? Perhaps it is the very fear of conflict that ignites tension at the dinner table. If so, this implies that people’s worry over a dreaded outcome will only exacerbate the probability of that very outcome’s occurrence. Like many things in life, the negative association between anxiety and perspective-taking may be part of a vicious cycle.
The effects of anxiety extend beyond the social, as well. Kierkegaard, author of “Fear and Trembling,” used the word angst to describe that low hum of terror we experience while contemplating our own death. Anxiety may therefore be not just a reaction to high-stakes social incidents, but rather a chronic condition of a species wise enough to understand inevitable demise but not yet smart enough to know how to do anything about it. And if angst is our perennial affliction, then so, it would seem, is loneliness, as anxiety traps us in our own skin and garbles our attempts to decipher the world from others’ points of view.
On the flip side, though, the task seems clear: to lessen our fear of being vulnerable and of the unknown, and in so doing, to cultivate and nourish those little roots and tentacles we send out into the social world. If anxiety arises out of threat to the ego, then, by eschewing the ego, we may be able to cut the venom off at its source. Getting over ourselves and reaching out to others, in other words, might be two sides of the same coin.