Friday, September 19, 2008

Modifying shyness-related behavior through symptom misattribution

Brodt, S.E. & Zimbardo, P.G. (1981). Modifying shyness-related behavior through symptom misattribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 437-449.

In response to anxiety-evoking stimuli, people develop a complex constellation of reactions. Over time, a general categorical label may come to link these components together and serve as a central explanation. For some people, this label may undergo further transformation from its original situational attribution to a broader usage that includes the person's disposition (personal causality). For example, a person may immediately invoke the label "I am afraid of men" which in turn may kick off a response chain and impose constraints upon it, creating self-fulfilling prophecies. The authors of this study wanted to weaken the 3-part link between perceived symptoms of arousal, the corresponding dispositional label, and resultant behaviors by intervening with symptom misattribution.

In this experiment with 46 college women, the dispositional label studied was shyness -- an excessive self-focus in which potential rejection by other people and social anxiety are salient cognitions. Seeking to redirect the arousal from an anxiety-laden source (being alone with a member of the opposite sex) to a nonpsychological source, the researchers exposed all the groups to intense noise and led the "shy misattribution" group to believe that common side effects of noise bombardment was heart-pounding and increased pulse, symptoms normally associated with their social anxiety. Another group, the "shy comparison" group were led to believe the noise only caused dry mouth. Another "non-shy" group, unlike the other groups did not score high on shyness ratings, were given the same story as the "shy misattribution group". Results showed that shy women, when given an alternative explanation for their social anxiety, were able to overcome normal limitations of their shyness, talking significantly more, acting more assertive, and showing a stronger affiliative preference than the comparison group. Thus, misattribution demonstrates the power of social cognitions in controlling behavior.

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