Research Findings

Social Anxiety Disorder and Social Blunders

A new article in The Atlantic outlines the different ways that people are affected by social anxiety, and how exposing people to some of their social fears (e.g., having them intentionally commit blunders or mishaps and observe that the effects are typically not as catastrophic as they imagine) can be an important part of treatment for social anxiety.  

Most people have experienced some kind of social blunder (e.g., tripping, spilling coffee). However, people with social anxiety tend to interpret these mishaps as having negative social costs (e.g., ridicule, rejection, embarrassment or shame) and some of our very own research provides insight into why this might be the case. 

In one study (Moscovitch, Rodebaugh, & Hesch, 2012a), we asked people with low and high social anxiety to imagine committing a social blunder, and also imagine watching another person commit that same blunder (e.g., tripping in front of an acquaintance in whom they have a romantic interest or crush ). Our results showed that people with high social anxiety rated the social costs of blunders as being much higher than people with low social anxiety, irrespective of whether they imagined themselves or a third person committing the blunder. This result suggests that people with social anxiety hold strict beliefs about social norms – for themselves and others.

In another study (Moscovitch, Waechter, Bielak, Rowa, & McCabe, 2015) we again asked people to imagine themselves and another person committing a social blunder. However, this time we included participants with social anxiety disorder, other anxiety disorders, and people with no anxiety problems to see whether there was something specific to social anxiety – rather than anxiety disorders in general – that could help to explain why people with social anxiety view blunders as so costly. What did we find? Our results showed that when it came to rating the costs of blunders committed by a third party, people with social anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders rated the social costs at similar levels, and these ratings were higher than those of people with no anxiety problems. However, when it came to rating the costs of their own imagined blunders, people with social anxiety disorder provided significantly higher estimates of social costs than people with other anxiety disorders and those without anxiety problems. In fact, we found that part of the explanation for the strong relationship between blunders and negative social costs was accounted for by social anxious participants’ concerns about revealing self-flaws (e.g., social incompetence) in these types of situations.  

What do our findings suggest about treatment for social anxiety?

Social blunders are unexpected, and although most people experience them from time to time, individuals with social anxiety disorder tend to view them as especially costly. Our research suggests that part of the reason people with high levels of social anxiety tend to view social blunders as so costly is that they might reveal self-flaws in these types of situations. These findings suggest that treatment should fruitfully target the perception of oneself as being socially incompetent and the associated need to avoid social encounters because of the fear of making mistakes (see Moscovitch et al., 2013).

Exaggerating the costs of committing these blunders or revealing self-flaws can be viewed as “judgment biases” and some of our research concerning the treatment of social anxiety tells us that changes in these kinds of cognitive biases over the course of therapy is associated with decreased social anxiety symptoms (Moscovitch et al., 2012b). Thus, people with social anxiety should not only be exposed to their feared social situations in therapy, but effective therapy should be aimed at helping people to reinterpret the meaning of these feared situations.  


  • Moscovitch, D.A., Rodebaugh, T.L., & Hesch, B.D., (2012a). How awkward! Social anxiety and the perceived consequences of social blunders. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50, 142-149.
  • Moscovitch, D.A., Gavric, D.L., Senn, J., Santesso, D.L., Miskovic, V., Schmidt, L.A., McCabe, R.E., & Antony, M.M. (2012b). Changes in judgment biases and use of emotion regulation strategies during cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder: Distinguishing treatment responders from nonresponders. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36, 261-271.
  • Moscovitch, D.A., Rowa, K., Paulitzki, J.R., Ierullo, M.D., Chiang, B., Antony, M.M., & McCabe, R.E. (2013). Self-portrayal concerns and their relation to safety behaviors and negative affect in social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51, 476-486.
  • Moscovitch, D.A., Waechter, S., Bielak, T., Rowa, K., & McCabe, R. E. (2015). Out of the shadows and into the spotlight: Social blunders fuel fear of self-exposure in social anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 34, 24-32.