The Evolution of Social Anxiety

Feelings of social anxiety are very real, but thanks to our ancestors, they’re not very reliable.

I was walking home one night. I saw a shorter person a couple blocks ahead of me. By virtue of my longer legs, I steadily closed distance. When I was within fifty feet, this person abruptly turned to see who was “following” them. A streetlamp lit her face, I recognized her and greeted my neighbor.

Natural False Positives

The instinct that prompted my neighbor to turn around, according to Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, belongs to a class of feelings he calls false positives.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t immune to this form of anxiety, though their trigger may have been an unidentified rustling in the grass. Wright’s point is that even though our emotions are very real to us, “Our feelings weren’t designed to depict reality accurately even in our ‘natural’ environment.”

If our ancestors responded to false alarms ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s only natural that we trend a little jumpy.

If we went back to our ancestors to complain about this, they might share wistful stories about their tribe’s fearless men who died so young.

Unnatural False Positives

“The fact that we’re not living in a ‘natural’ environment makes our feelings even less reliable guides to reality,” suggests Wright.

I found a cute and creepy photo starring GI Joe and Barbie on my Facebook feed. It had been posted by a Facebook friend (whom I’d never met outside the virtual world), but whose twisted sense of humor I enjoyed. I left a comment about some scenarios I had dreamed up for my own GI Joe and Barbie dolls (the Barbie had come from my grandmother not because she was gender-neutral progressive, but because she had no experience buying toys for young boys). My Facebook friend and I exchanged a few comments with LOLs.

A few days later, I spotted another weird picture that I thought she might enjoy and went to pass it along. Her name didn’t show up. I tried it a few more times. Nothing. I tried again over the next few days. Nothing. I scrolled back in my newsfeed to leave a comment in a previous post, but all of those posts were gone, too.

Had I offended? Had she unfriended? I didn’t know. I would never know. What I knew was that I didn’t like how I felt in that moment.

Though our feelings are geared to help us get along with other members of our tribe in order to maximize our breeding potential, Wright reminds us, “In a hunter-gatherer village, your neighbors would have had a vast database on your behavior, so you’d be unlikely, on any given day, to do anything that radically revised their opinion of you, for better or worse. Social encounters wouldn’t typically have been high-pressure events.”

A week or so later, my Facebook friend was magically back in my newsfeed. Turns out her absence had been caused by someone who’d posted something offensive on her newsfeed resulting in the suspension of both their accounts.

If I knew how to time travel, I could visit my hunter-gatherer ancestors, pull out my smartphone, and complain about this. But without Internet reception, I might become known as “Man who thinks shiny black mirror is people,” so it’s unlikely I’d pass on my genes.

Exaggerated Feelings

A third class of false positives that I mentioned in “Not So Great Expectations,” is that we exaggerate the amount of pleasure or pain our actions will bring us. “The Case of Unintentional Weight Gain and the Killed Off Chips” looked at how this feature of evolution works in terms of food cravings.

Wright also examines duration.

“Our ongoing attempts to feel better tend to involve an over-estimation of how long ‘better’ is going to last. What’s more, when ‘better’ ends, it can be followed by ‘worse’—an unsettled feeling, a thirst for more.”

“We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next powdered-sugar doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more.”

Everlasting bliss from a powdered-sugar doughnut or orgasm isn’t a great prescription for passing genes along to the next generation.

If our ancestors could somehow visit us, we could get even with them by giving them soda pop, potato chips, Amazon Prime, Netflix, social media, and Internet porn.

Ten Second Social Anxiety Reality Check

While we’re waiting a couple hundred generations to naturally select skillful ways to adapt to our progressively unnatural environment, our ancestors handed down some ideas you can try right now.

Before talking or typing, ask:

1. Is it true?

2. Is it useful?

3. Is it connected to my/our objective?

4. Is it pleasant or agreeable to others? If it is disagreeable, but fits the other three objectives, it’s probably best to communicate it discreetly and at the right time.

We can’t always control whether we read or overhear unpleasant or disagreeable things, but if we’re prone to social anxiety, we can limit our voluntary exposure.


When it comes to training ourselves to cope with false positives:

1. Natural false positives: act first, ask questions later.

But remember to laugh it off if you’re still alive. Laughter is a good way to decompress. I laughed myself silly once when I’d been freaked out by my own shadow.

2. Unnatural false positives: ask questions first, act later.

Is it really possible that others are thinking about me as often as I think about myself? Isn’t it more likely that they spend their spare time thinking about themselves?

Do I really get as much from online friendships as I do from friendships in the real world?

Should I want to be friends with people who will ditch me the moment I say something they disagree with?

3. Exaggerated feelings: ask questions first, act later.

Will the satisfaction I get from my pay raise and job title stand-up to the additional hours and stress?

Will my new car or bigger house impress people (or myself) longer than it takes me to pay for them?

If this product is as amazing as they say it is, aren’t the sellers foolish to ask only 19.99 plus shipping & handling?

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.