You’re Kind of Self-Centered When You’re Nervous

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Nerves have a way of making you fold into yourself, obsessing over each awkward thing you’ve said or done in front of someone you’re trying to impress. You’re chatting away, but you’re also very much focused on you, trying to figure out the impression you’re leaving. Meanwhile, you’ve missed the last 5 minutes of the conversation, which makes it highly likely that the impression you’re leaving is that you’re kind of a jerk. 

Feeling anxious or nervous, in other words, can make you a little self-centered, an idea that’s explored in a new study appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. “When you get anxious, it narrows your attention,” said Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School and one of the study’s co-authors. “You feel like you’ve got to go back inside yourself and figure things out – Do they really like me? Am I really a good person?” And all of this self-focusing you’re doing means you’re less likely to focus on anyone else, Galinsky said. (He’s talking about – and the research focuses on – the kind of everyday anxiety we all feel from time to time, and not an anxiety disorder.)

Galinsky and a team of researchers from Harvard Business School, the University of Cologne, and the University of Iowa tested their theory over six experiments. In one, they prompted about a third of their 135 study subjects to feel anxious and a third to feel angry by asking them to write about a time in their own lives when they experienced one of those emotions; a third group was asked to write about how they typically spend their evenings, a task meant to induce no particular feeling at all. 

After the writing exercise, all the study participants were shown a photo of a person sitting at a table, facing them. On the table was a book, which was on the right side of the table from the study subjects’ viewpoint, but on the left side of the person in the photograph. The researchers asked the participants a series of questions about the photo, but they were really only interested in one: On which side of the table is the book? Of those who’d been primed to feel anxious, 72 percent answered that the book was on the right side of the table; in comparison, 50 percent of those in the anger condition and 45 percent of those in the neutral condition thought the book was on the right side. This suggests, Galinsky and the rest argue, that anxiety makes it harder for people to visualize what the world looks like from another person’s perspective.

These findings were replicated in similar experiments, including one in which study subjects — half of which had been manipulated to feel angry and half to feel anxious, via the same writing task — were given a harshly worded email to read. Some of them were then told that the writer of the nasty email had been sarcastic, something that the recipient of the email wouldn’t know. The researchers then asked all the participants how they thought the recipient of the email would interpret the message: sarcastic, or sincere in its jerkiness? Again, those who’d been prompted to feel anxious were more likely to answer the question from their own perspective, in this case by saying that the person receiving the email would likely recognize it as sarcasm. 

But does anxiety cause people to be self-focused – or does focusing on yourself lead to anxiety? A pair of Canadian researchers examined this question in a 2012 study, and found evidence of the latter. “We looked at socially anxious individuals, and found that those who were assigned to be self-focused during a social interaction dwelled more on that interaction the next day than those who were assigned to focus on the other person during the interaction,” said Nancy L. Kocovski, who co-authored that study. Her study, unlike Galinsky’s, was on individuals with social anxiety disorder, but the lesson likely can be applied to everyday anxiety — that is, simply try getting out of your own head, and focus on the people in front of you instead of yourself. You could probably also just call this “manners.”