Social anxiety in dating initiation: an experimental investigation of an evolved mating-specific anxiety mechanism



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A theoretical debate is currently ongoing about whether human emotional states were molded by evolutionary pressures to serve particular functions. Social anxiety has entered this debate. Non-evolutionary and evolutionarily adaptive functional accounts of social anxiety have suggested that it serves as a ready-made excuse for poor social performance, as a signal of submissiveness to prevent hostility from dominant social partners, or as a cognitive interruption of a “serious social blunder” that would lead to group expulsion. The evolutionary accounts are domain-general, in that they attempt to explain the adaptive value of social anxiety with a single function for all social contexts. The aim of the present study was to test a domain-specific account of social anxiety, limiting investigation to the mating domain. This study proposed that mating anxiety helps solve the adaptive problem of the costliness of being rejected by a potential mate. To accomplish this, the mating anxiety mechanism was hypothesized to estimate the likelihood of rejection by a potential mate by calculating the discrepancy between their respective levels of desirability (Mate Value Discrepancy). Gender differences in mating anxiety were also expected based on documented sex differences in preference for physical attractiveness (PA) and social status/financial resources (S/R) in a mate. A fictitious dating service was created in which participants viewed mate profiles of four types: high PA-high S/R, high PA-low S/R, low PAhigh S/R, and low PA-low S/R. A 2 (Profile PA) x 2 (Profile S/R) x 3 (Replicates for each mate type) x 2 (Participant Gender) design, with 2 covariates (self-rated PA and self-rated S/R) was used to test the effects of profile and participant characteristics on Anxiety, Likelihood of Rejection (LR), and Likelihood of Asking the individual for a date (LA). Hierarchical Linear Modeling was used to test the predictions about mate value discrepancy (MVD) and LR on Anxiety. MVD had a highly significant effect on Anxiety and on LR. LR had a significant effect on Anxiety as predicted, but did not mediate the effect of MVD on Anxiety. A gender differences in anxiety were found in the effect of profile status/resources on anxiety, but not for other profile or participant characteristics as expected. The implications of an unexpected sex difference (men having greater anxiety than women) are discussed. The results suggest strong support a domain-specific approach and the position that human emotions serve adaptive functions.