Ogrodniczuk, J. (2005). The Anxiety Disorders. The Behavioral Genetics of Psychopathology: A Clinical Guide, 111.
According to Ogrodniczuk (2005) operant conditioning was the primary means behavior was acquired for social anxiety and avoidant personality issues. What does this mean? Let’s first define operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a psychological terminology defined as “the frequency or strength of a behavior being influenced by a reward or punishment. For example, when we avoid social situations, we are rewarded with the gift of our anxiety going down.
The good feeling of anxiety going down is attributed to our a voidance behavior. Therefore, the next time we are in social distress we will remember that we can give ourselves the gift of anxiety reduction by avoiding or removing ourselves from the social situation. After months and years of giving ourselves this reward our brain automatically takes over and starts subconsciously encouraging us to avoid anxious producing social interactions. When this happens, operant conditioning has set in.
Why is operant conditioning so dangerous for avoidant personality and social anxiety? The subconscious chronic reward of anxiety reduction through avoidance robs us of our ability to learn how to tolerate social anxiety. Think of social anxiety tolerance as a necessary skill and a muscle that must be exercised. Persons with high social avoidance also usually have very low social anxiety tolerance as their social tolerance muscle is atrophied from a lack of use. Think of low social anxiety tolerance as an allergy. When our tolerance for social anxiety is low, it’s like having an allergic reaction to the social event and encourages us even more so to give ourselves the reward of anxiety reduction by avoiding.