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When praise is a problem

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Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D :
How do you react when you've received a compliment? Perhaps you worked particularly hard to prepare a bowl of cole slaw for a potluck dinner among friends and family. As you watch the products of your efforts disappear before your eyes, it's clear that it was a big hit. The words of appreciation and praise of "delicious!" and "best cole slaw ever!" ring in your ears. Everyone wants to know your recipe, further reinforcing the impression you've made as an excellent cook. You've prepared other foods for this group before, but this is perhaps the most favorably your efforts have been received.
For several weeks after the dinner, you find your mind drifting to this incident, recalling it with pleasure. Now imagine that the same event taking place for people who feel uncomfortable at receiving this type of attention. They would rather their efforts, no matter how fantastic, be quietly acknowledged. If others do heap praise upon them, they quickly move on as if nothing happened. Rather than remember their successes with pleasure, the memories disappear almost immediately. Instead, all that sticks are the times they made a mistake in front of other people or their culinary creations flopped miserably.
According to University of British Columbia's Brianne Glazier and Lynne Alden (2019), it's this tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive in their past experiences that characterizes people with social anxiety disorder (SAD). People without SAD show a "positivity" bias in which the memories that bolster their self-esteem are what stick due to "an adaptive self-protective drive to maintain self-esteem" (p. 1). Following from this logic, the Canadian authors proposed that people with social anxiety disorder would carry their positivity deficit to a fading of memory over time of positive feedback about their performance. In contrast, they expected that people without SAD would show the more typical positivity bias of remembering a favorable outcome.
To test the lack of positivity bias among people with SAD, Glazier and Alden chose a sample of 68 adults diagnosed with SAD whom they compared with 71 individuals not receiving this diagnosis ("healthy controls"). The sample consisted primarily of women averaging around 30 years of age, and the SAD group had been recruited from the community using electronic and print advertisements. Prior to the experimental session, participants completed a measure assessing anxiety via a standardized clinical interview. They also completed a self-report questionnaire concerning their fear of performing in public as well as assessments of general negative affect.
For the experimental part of the study, participants were asked to give an impromptu speech to a webcam on any topic they chose, while told that an independent judge would rate them on a number of performance criteria. Following the speech, participants received either positive or neutral fake feedback, depending on the experimental condition to which the researchers randomly assigned them.  The feedback dimensions included items such as "appeared tense," or showed signs of "shaking/tremor." In the positive condition, the feedback showed ratings along the desirable end of 10 of the scales, in the middle on 2 items, and in the negative range on 2 items. In the neutral condition, the participants received 10 ratings along the neutral points of the scale, 2 on the positive, and 2 on the negative.  The participants then rated their memory for feedback on these and 10 other scales for which they had not actually received feedback. The key question was whether participants with SAD would be more likely to remember the negatively valenced items than the positive feedback as well as whether participants recalled feedback on ratings for which they had not actually received feedback.
In this community-based, clinical sample, the findings supported the predictions that people with SAD would be less likely to remember positively-valenced feedback compared to their non-SAD counterparts in the week that passed between memory assessments. As the authors concluded, "participants with SAD displayed erosion in their memories for positive feedback over time and healthy controls did not" (p. 5). As a result, again according to the theoretical model adopted by Glazier and Alden, the failure to remember positive events leads people with SAD to remain primed for future negative feedback rather than to be open to receiving those compliments that people without this disorder both expect and remember. Given the many controls adopted in this study, namely, the measure of other negative affective states, and efforts to make the situation as realistic as possible, the authors believe that the findings support the unique effect of social anxiety on reactions to praise.
What was particularly interesting about these findings was that the authors could track the decrease over time in the recall that the healthy control and SAD participants had when they received favorable feedback ratings. The fact that those with SAD registered the feedback as positive at the time, but then could not recall it suggests, further, that they can regard "feedback as objectively positive… yet not experience happiness when receiving it" (p. 5). The authors note several limitations in the study, such as the fact that it was a simulated lab task, and also that the memory task involved only a 1-week period. The feedback was also highly specific, unlike the more ambiguous and subjective feedback that people receive in real life. Furthermore, the sample was heavily weighted toward females and did not have enough cultural diversity to include participants who might not be conditioned by their life experiences to expect positive feedback in their ordinary interactions.
The UBC results provide useful suggestions for the direction that therapy might go for people with social anxiety disorder who, according to these findings, may process but not register a compliment. Whether due to feelings that they don't deserve to be praised, a desire to escape the limelight, or a lifetime of pushing positive experiences out of consciousness, that erosion of memory could provide an area in which therapists and patients can work together to rebuild those memories.
To sum up, being able to experience happiness when other people notice you can be an important source of fulfillment. You don't need to take pride in absolutely everything you do, but when others notice, it's adaptive to be able to hold on to them, if only for a short time.

(Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment).

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