We found that reactivity to exclusion simulated by the Cyberball computer task prospectively predicted social anxiety 2 months later. Against hypothesis, and in contrast with findings regarding children and adolescents, past teasing through high school. and current relational victimization at Time 1 did not prospectively predict social anxiety. These results bridge findings between childhood and adolescent research and research on adults with SAD (e.g., Erath et al., 2008
; McCabe et al., 2003
; Ranta, Kaltiala-Heino, Fröjd, & Marttunen, 2012
; Siegel et al., 2009
), potentially shedding light on a transition between adolescence and adulthood in regard to maintenance of social anxiety. Instead of finding that victimization continued its previously found effects on social anxiety after high school and into college, we found no indication of self-reported victimization predicting social anxiety over time. Indeed, we found that social anxiety might lead to changes in memories
of previous victimization, although even that finding was not statistically significant. Instead of current experiences of peer victimization, it appears that processes already put into place by past victimization tend to maintain themselves over time. As a consequence, findings with adults who have SAD (McCabe et al., 2003
) might represent an internalization of past experiences, or even an increasingly biased view of these past experiences, rather than an ongoing process beyond adolescence. This idea is consistent with research suggesting that individuals with higher social anxiety tend to perceive themselves and their experiences more negatively than individuals with lower social anxiety (e.g. Moscovitch, Orr, Rowa, Gehring Reimer, & Antony, 2009
The influence of reactivity to exclusion on future social anxiety displayed in our data suggests two additional conclusions. The first is that peer reactions, potentially falling short of victimization, may continue to influence the development of social anxiety, perhaps without even entering the consciousness of young adults. That is, social anxiety might be maintained by negative reactions to relatively subtle peer behavior that does not appear evident as victimizing per se. We also speculate that the current findings may be dependent upon a relatively supportive college environment, such as the one from which our current sample was drawn. For young adults in a nonsupportive environment we find it plausible that peer victimization would continue to maintain social anxiety. It may be that the process of relational aggression leading to social anxiety may trail off in college and potentially for young adults not enrolled in college, though this idea is speculative and population-based research is needed to address prevalence of peer victimization in young adulthood and across all ages and grade levels.
Reactivity from a computer task was a better predictor of social anxiety symptoms than self-reports of past and current victimization, suggesting that reactivity, rather than victimization per se, may constitute the link between social anxiety and victimization in young adults and potentially in adolescents as well. That is, we theorize that in adolescents and children, reactivity to exclusion might explain any tendency for exclusion itself to prospectively predict social anxiety. We also found that our model was invariant across gender. Reactivity appears to be a general construct that may enhance the risk for social anxiety in both genders. This finding is consistent with cognitive models of social anxiety that suggest that individuals with SAD are likely both to perceive interactions as rejecting and to be highly concerned about the consequences of rejection, therefore reacting with heightened anxiety (e.g., Clark & Wells, 1995
; Heimberg et al., 2012
; Hofmann, 2007
). It may be that this reactivity to a negatively perceived event is the factor that drives further development of social anxiety symptoms. Further, we found that increased relational victimization at Time 2 was predicted by memories of past teasing at Time 1. It may be that individuals who were teased in high school are at greater risk of continued victimization through college. Alternatively, because these are self-report measures, it could be that individuals who perceive heightened teasing in high school also perceive heightened victimization in college.
Our findings should be considered with the limitations of the study in mind. First, these results are based on primarily self-report and are therefore subject to the limitations of self-report data such as biased or inaccurate responding. Future researchers could expand upon these results and include physiological or behavioral measures of reactivity. In addition, our sample consisted mostly of young adult women selected in part due to convenience. Future researchers should test whether these results generalize to additional populations, especially within individuals with clinical levels of social anxiety. However, we believe that young adults are an undersampled area of the population in terms of peer victimization research. Thus, in this study we have begun to test how peer victimization affects individuals in college, and we are most concerned that, in future studies, these findings be tested in (a) young adults not attending college; (b) young adults in other cultures, and, in regard to the predictive power of reactivity to exclusion; (c) adolescents and children; and (d) clinical samples of individuals with SAD. We also think that the longitudinal design and use of a laboratory task help alleviate typical limitations associated with the use of undergraduate samples: We found support for a prospective relationship utilizing an in vivo computer task that simulates exclusion, rather than a cross-sectional relationship captured by self-report alone. Other methods, such as ecological momentary assessment and peer report of exclusion experiences, would be useful in testing the robustness of our findings.
With these limitations in mind, there are several clinical implications that stem from this research. Exclusion and peer victimization are powerful stressors that can lead to negative psychological outcomes (Hawker & Boulton, 2000
). Our study further supported the general association between victimization and social anxiety. Specifically, our results suggest that one’s reaction to victimization is a prospective predictor of social anxiety, whereas in young adults, past memories of teasing and current relational victimization may not predict. This result suggests that past findings linking social anxiety to peer victimization in adolescents and children may be better explained by reactions
to victimization, rather than the experience of peer victimization leading directly to increased social anxiety (Erath et al., 2008
; Siegel et al., 2009
). However, we think it is important to keep in mind that these results were found in a normative sample of college students and could differ in young adults not in college or in clinical samples. That being said, clinicians who are treating adults with SAD (especially young adults in a college environment) may want to consider several points: (a) it may be the reaction
rather than the actual presence of peer victimization that leads to increases in social anxiety and (b) the relationship between social anxiety and peer victimization may be due in part to memories of past victimization instead of ongoing victimization. Therefore, interventions (such as cognitive restructuring or imaginal exposure) that can help to alleviate negative reactions to peer victimization such as negative views of the self and intrusive memories about the event may be helpful.
Future researchers should investigate possible mechanisms that might explain why some individuals report greater anxiety after being excluded as well as how
these reactions to exclusion lead to social anxiety over time. Research suggests that there are genetic contributions to social pain (Way & Taylor, 2011
) and researchers have identified areas of the brain that are activated during social pain, exclusion, or rejection (e.g., Eisenberger, 2011
). In one study, individuals who reported feeling heightened social rejection across a 10-day period also showed greater brain activation in social pain areas during the Cyberball exclusion task (Eisenberger, Gable, & Lieberman, 2007
). It seems plausible that reactivity as measured during the Cyberball task may be a self-reported measure of these biological processes. Individuals who are biologically predisposed to experience (and report) heightened reactivity may go on to develop symptoms of SAD. Of course, future research linking these biological and physiological processes with self-report of reactivity is needed.
These data also speak to the importance of interventions with young adults that focus on how they react to and process stressful social interactions. It seems that reactivity to exclusion may be a useful target for screening and prevention of SAD. Itmay be that if we are able to prevent such negative reactions to social exclusion, we may also prevent the development of social anxiety symptoms. Perhaps an educational intervention teaching parents how to educate children on how to react in a more positive manner to exclusion (i.e., instead of blaming oneself or attributing the exclusion to negative characteristics of the self) could be used (as in Rapee, 2013
). In addition, clinicians could work with patients to challenge their beliefs surrounding their memories of teasing and work with them on decreasing negative reactions to exclusion (perhaps through exposures that simulate exclusion). It also seems worthwhile to test whether reactivity to exclusion may impact other disorders related to peer victimization (e.g. depression, eating disorders; Hawker & Boulton, 2000
). We hope that future research can help shed light on interventions that can counteract the negative effects of peer victimization.