Kindness reduces avoidance goals in socially anxious individuals

Abstract

Social avoidance goals have been linked to negative social outcomes and may contribute to the social impairment experienced by socially anxious individuals. In this study, we examined whether engaging in acts of kindness, a technique designed to increase happiness, decreases social avoidance goals in socially anxious participants and whether social anxiety reduction and hedonic enhancement (i.e., increased positive affect) mediate this effect. Socially anxious undergraduates were randomly assigned to three conditions: performing acts of kindness (AK; N = 38); exposure only (EO; N = 41); and recording life details (LD; N = 36), a neutral control condition. Participants engaged in these activities for 4 weeks. AK resulted in the greatest decrease in social avoidance goals by post-intervention. EO also reduced avoidance goals over time relative to LD. The effect of task condition on avoidance goals over time was fully mediated by social anxiety reduction over time. Neither AK nor EO increased positive affect. Implications for social anxiety treatment are discussed.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Although Alden and Trew (2013) found that acts of kindness did not affect social approach goals or negative affect and no significant effects were anticipated, these variables were assessed by the SGQ and the I-PANAS-SF and were examined to confirm a lack of group differences. These results are briefly described in a footnote below.

  2. 2.

    Consistent with this, an ANCOVA revealed no significant group differences in the SIAS-S at post-intervention, controlling for pre-intervention SIAS-S, F(2, 111) = 2.45, p = .09, Cohens f = 0.21.

  3. 3.

    Correlations between the two online forms administered each week ranged from .60 to .89 across the full set of measures (M = .72, SD = 0.09).

  4. 4.

    The pattern of results was identical when these participants were included in the analyses (i.e., carrying their initial session scores over to the return session for the ANCOVAs). One participant was excluded from the latent trajectory and mediation analyses as they had completed no online forms.

  5. 5.

    There were no significant gender differences in kindness ratings in the AK, χ 2(1, n = 832) = 0.13, p = .71, or LD groups, χ 2(1, n = 1061) = 0.21, p = .64. Men (M = .13, SD = 0.28) reported more kind acts relative to women (M = .04, SD = 0.05) in the EO group, χ 2(1, n = 797) = 24.57, p < .001. There were also no significant gender differences in social activity ratings in the AK group, χ 2(1, n = 837) = 2.60, p = .11. Women reported a higher proportion of social activities in the EO (M = .97, SD = 0.05), χ 2(1, n = 795) = 15.95, p < .001, and LD (M = .35, SD = 0.13), χ 2(1, n = 1061) = 5.72, p = .02, groups relative to men (M = .92, SD = 0.10 and M = .28, SD = 0.33, respectively).

  6. 6.

    Consistent with Alden and Trew (2013), no significant group differences were observed in the ANCOVAs for SGQ-approach or NA. Similarly no group differences were observed on initial response or rate of change over time in SGQ-approach or NA in the latent trajectory analyses. Full results available upon request.

  7. 7.

    When gender was added to each model, gender did not affect SGQ-avoidance, F(1, 108) = 1.62, p = .21, DSA, F(1, 108) = 1.02, p = .32, or PA, F(1, 108) = 0.06, p = .81, nor did it interact with task condition in the models for SGQ-avoidance, F(2, 108) = 1.00, p = .37, DSA, F(2, 108) = 0.30, p = .74, or PA, F(2, 108) = 1.28, p = .28.

  8. 8.

    Residual correlations were added between the error terms for DSA and SGQ-avoidance at week 2 and at week 3 to improve model fit. These correlations likely reflect shared method variance and are not included in Fig. 2.

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Acknowledgments

This manuscript includes data from the first author’s doctoral dissertation. This research was supported by IODE Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the University of British Columbia. The authors would like to thank Sara Yuen, Elisa Choi, Carmen Gee, Brett Sinclair, Rachelle Pullmer, Angela Cheung, Uyoyouoghene Eto, Donya Samadi, Janet Jung, Lucinda Xin, Ingrid Tsang, Anna Bourak, Dawn Lee, Dedy Wong, Annie Tang, and Jade McGregor for their assistance with data collection and preparation, Dr. Rebecca Cobb for her feedback on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and Morgan Donahue, Dorianna Dickson, and Roza Mohammadi for their assistance with data coding.

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The authors have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

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Correspondence to Lynn E. Alden.

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Trew, J.L., Alden, L.E. Kindness reduces avoidance goals in socially anxious individuals. Motiv Emot 39, 892–907 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-015-9499-5

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Keywords

  • Social anxiety
  • Kindness
  • Exposure
  • Avoidance
  • Social goals