When Adaptations Go Awry: Functional and Dysfunctional Aspects of Social Anxiety


Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jon Maner, Dept of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-4301 [e-mail: maner@psy.fsu.edu].


Adaptations are psychological and behavioral mechanisms designed through evolution to serve specific purposes ultimately related to reproductive success. Although adaptations are inherently functional, in some cases their operation can nevertheless cause personal and social dysfunction. We describe a theoretical framework for understanding, predicting, and reducing the dysfunctional consequences of psychological adaptations. We discuss three general sources of dysfunction: (a) the existence of adaptive trade-offs, (b) mismatches between current environments and ancestral environments, and (c) individual differences. The article applies this framework primarily to the topic of social anxiety, a psychological phenomenon marked by concerns pertaining to social rejection and embarrassment. Although social anxiety can serve useful functions, it can also involve excessive worry, negative effect, and avoidance of social situations, leading to significant distress and social impairment. We consider sources of dysfunction in social anxiety and discuss implications for policy, including recommendations for psychological, situational, and biological interventions. We also discuss broader applications of this theoretical framework to other areas of social life.