How to improve social anxiety by training your attention

In 2009 Brad Schmidt and colleagues published a clever treatment for social anxiety disorder. Before I describe it, a short “spoiler” alert…

If, as i suspect, you are reading this looking for a self-help treatment for social anxiety, I recommend that you do not read this article, as knowing the nature of the experiment might negate its effects (or it may not; I don’t know, but it surely can’t help you so let’s stay on the safe side).

Instead, try to get hold of the computer program used in the study. The best lead I have is Richard McNally’s lab who tested an iPhone, iPad and android app of the program. There might be an ongoing study you can take part in, or you could try requesting a copy of the app for your own use.

End of spoiler alert

Hypersensitivity to threats is a feature of social anxiety disorder. Where one person sees a disgusted facial expression and ignores it to continue chit-chatting, the person with SAD will focus on this facial expression and take it as evidence that they are being poorly judged.

They are negative evaluation detectives, scanning and interpreting social situations in a way that paints them negatively. For whatever reason, an adaptive behaviour — making sure we’re not pissing off our allies — has become maladaptive, leading to anxiety.

Threat? Photo: massdistraction

A potential treatment, then, would be to re-train the attention not to focus on negative facial expressions so much. This is what the program aims to do. Here’s how it works.

Participants are presented with two pictures of people, one displaying a threatening facial expression, the other a neutral one. The pictures stay for a while and then disappear, and one picture leaves a letter in its place. Participants press a key to indicate which face left the letter behind. They are told to do this as fast as they can.

The trick is that 80% of the time the letter appears behind the non-threatening face so that over time, participants are being trained to move their attention away from threatening faces. With less attention paid to them, there’s less opportunity to infer negative judgements. The fact that participants have to press the keys quickly is important here, like a “gamification” effect to increase engagement and attention.

Participants completed eight 15-minute sessions on the program, two per week for 4 weeks. Could such a short, simple game really make real-world differences in social anxiety disorders? Well this is only one test and it needs to be repeated, but the results were impressive. After 4 weeks, 72% of participants no longer met the criteria to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, compared with 11% in the control group. The results remained in a follow-up four months later.

So, yes, so far it seems it can.

Free course by Jay Uhdinger: Success does not equal happiness

Jay Uhdinger of the appropriately named has put together a free course on meditation and CBT.

The course is called Success != Happiness and covers techniques to help you gain greater control over your emotions and ultimately more happiness. Everything in Jay’s course is fully supported by research. CBT is widely used in psychotherapy these days and focuses on the idea that your emotions are closely linked to your thoughts, and by changing your thoughts, you change how you feel. Mindfulness has more recently caught the interest of researchers and has been linked with all kinds of positive things, including more happiness and increased cognitive function.

The good thing about Jay’s course, apart from it being 100% completely free, is that it is so well put together. The lessons are in both theory and practice, which I like. By understanding the aims and means of each section, you don’t have to take the practical tips on blind faith and you have a better idea of why you’re doing what you’re doing. And the animations are really cool and high quality.

I hope you’ll go check out the course, click below to give it a try:

Jay Uhdinger’s Success does not equal happiness

Why are some people more driven than others???

Some people just have that “Get up and go,” don’t they??? This goes by many names – self-control, grit, motivation, drive, persistence, work-ethic. When it comes to succeeding in a particular pursuit, this thing is a pretty important factor, too. One study found that self-reported grit was more important than IQ in predicting a number of outcomes in eighth-grade students:

Self-discipline measured in the fall accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework.

It’s a pretty common trait among successful people, too. Will Smith is a pretty successful guy by most standards. Why is that? Here’s what he has to say about success:

Why are some people driven like this, while others are happy to tread water? Will Smith is clearly a very competitive guy with a huge work ethic. Where other people would be happy to take a day off, he keeps on working. Where other people slow down, he speeds up. Sounds exhausting! What is behind such a huge amount of effort?


I don’t believe that this is a fixed trait, because different people in different cultures and environments will react differently. But I do think genetics play a role. Many traits studied by psychologists have a strong genetic component, according to studies of twins. So maybe the traits that lead to being driven also develop more easily in people with a certain set of genes. I’ve never believed the idea that “All people are created equal.” Clearly, some people are born with better aptitudes in different areas than others. We’re not all born with the same mental blank slate, onto which we can develop in different directions.

Intrinsic Motivation

I’ve talked before about the difference between intrinsic motivation (something you do for its own sake) versus extrinsic motivation (something you do for a reward). Could it be that lack of drive is simply a symptom of doing something for a reward, as opposed to doing it for the pure pleasure of doing it?

Michael Jordan talks in his autobiography about how the massive amount of effort he put into training was fun. For him, getting up early every day to practice free throws was scarcely an effort. Not that it’s right to say he has no work ethic — of course not — only that what seems on the outside to be a strong work ethic and “forcing” of behaviours is sometimes less so from the inside.

The key thing to keep in mind here is difficulty. In the video above, Will Smith mentions the idea of talent versus skill, of honing your craft for thousands of hours until you’re a master. This gels with Ericsson‘s work on deliberate practice, and the well-known (thanks to Malcolm Gladwell) idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach mastery, regardless of the starting skill level. Deliberate practice is different to just doing the activity. It is doing it at the outer limit of your ability. It’s working on those hard, frustrating aspects that actually take effort. If you find a pentatonic scale difficult but could jam along to “She Loves You” all day long, then working on the former contributes to your 10,000 hours but the latter does not.

If your craft is something that naturally appeals to you, and you enjoy, so much the better, but you’ll still have times you don’t want to practice, or you’d rather relax, or where you’ve reached a plateau that is hard for you to progress past. Therefore, to the extent that skill level plays a role in success, it stands to reason that grit, persistence, and work ethic is going to play a role in success regardless of intrinsic motivation. As beneficial as it may be, don’t make the mistake of thinking that intrinsic motivation is necessarily synonymous with “high” motivation. I read books for intrinsic reasons, but I don’t always want to read.

You could say therefore, that success can stem from something that you’re intrinsically motivated to do, but either doesn’t require high levels of skill, or you already have high levels of skill in. As long as it’s not something mundane like eating. If you can find something like that, you’re home free, so it’s worth considering if any activities like this exist for you.

However, there is a trap here. If you’re looking for external success via something you’re intrinsically motivated to do, it could very easily switch to something you’re extrinsically motivated to do when you start seeing it as a path to external rewards. This is particularly dangerous, because as Dan Pink notes, motivation for activities only tends to be increased by external rewards when these are rote, boring, repetitive tasks. Ability on tasks that require creative thought or effort tends to be stunted by the promise of rewards. Maybe that’s why a musician’s second album is usually worse than the first?

Purpose / Meaning

Maybe some people have a greater sense of purpose behind them, and this provides the motivation for them to keep going even through difficult times. Survival is one such purpose. It’s hard to imaging Chinese factory workers doing 18 hour days in terrible conditions for any reason other than to survive. If they had a few million in the bank, that would seem like an absurd course of action.

Being anchored to a purpose might keep people going. When they feel like they want to take a break, they remind themselves of what they are trying to do, and they suddenly feel the urge to continue. This makes sense to me. I think our bodies keep energy in reserve, even when we feel very tired, just in case something of high importance becomes salient. Many a times I’ve been walking down the street, tired and hunched, when I see a pretty girl walking the opposite way. Isn’t it funny? I suddenly find the energy to walk upright and stick my chest out a bit!

I imagine this as a kind of evolutionary reserve power store, just in case something comes up that might influence our ability to survive our reproduce. But because our brains are adaptable, and self-programmable, we can “install” a number of rules so our brain learns other occasions it should access our reserve power. The ability to build a sense of purpose might be one such thing. Of the top of my head, I can think of one study that backs this up, where people who reviewed their core values did better in a self-control task than people who didn’t.

The need for success itself might serve this role for some. Why would Will Smith rather die than get off a treadmill before you? You could imagine some negative motivations behind this, like not wanting to feel like a failure, or status consciousness taken to such an extreme level that people would rather try to beat everyone that simply deal with that issue. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Competition can be a tool, something that you use to motivate yourself but deep down understand is essentially meaningless. Beyond competition, the desire to contribute and to serve might provide that purpose. There are many examples of people being willing to put themselves through hell, even to die, for a purpose. This is something we’ve been reminded of in recent years but the mechanism has always existed.

If this is correct, the action step here is to install a purpose into yourself, to find the meaning behind what you want to do. There are two ways. One is to determine your values, beliefs and convictions, and pick your direction based on them. This makes sense but is very difficult. If you ask yourself “What do I value?”, “What do I believe?”, it would be hard to know if the answer is “real,” and not something that has been pushed into your head from one of the 10 zillion sources we’re bombarded from in daily life. How “deep” do you have to go to find your true purpose, if there is such a thing, and where does it even come from?

The other way is to take your direction, and integrate your values into it. This strikes me as a temporary solution at best since the two probably won’t fit together very well. It’s unlikely you be pursuing a path that’s in line with your core values and not know it on some level. The reverse is probably true as well, if you’re going in a “wrong” direction there’s probably a little niggling feeling that pops up occasionally (but you bash it back down with the perks of the job).

Have I missed anything?

What do you think about this? Why are some people more driven than others? This isn’t an extensive list, just a few ideas – what have I missed?

Also, what do you think about the “how” side of things. How does one install a sense of purpose for instance?

Here’s another question – can the lack of purpose, motivation and genetic propensity be overcome through “techniques?” If you set goals, go over your values, plan your time, etc., is that enough?

What to do with your Strengths

Short Version

1) Find ways to use strengths more in your life
2) Look for supplementary knowledge on using these strengths in the domains you have chosen
3) Practice the activities that use the strengths and/or get training in them

Long Version

lego strong man hammer

Alright.  So you understand that a strength is a part of your brain that’s more efficient than other parts, like broadband is to dial-up.  And you agree with me that life is easier when you stick to your strengths.  Potentially, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it’s going to be a better experience if you set your mind to something that employs your strengths.  Also, you’ve figured out what your strengths are through either self-reflection or questionnaires.

Now what?

The next step is to blend your strengths into your life, and get over the obstacles that come up as you do so.  As I imply above, I’m assuming you’re sold on the idea of doing this; if not, re-read the links above to review the benefits, do some further reading through the books I mention or on the web, and ponder the issue further.  If you’re still not convinced, then move along: there’s nothing more to see here.

If you’re still with me, let’s start with…

Strengths and Career

You probably spend between 30 and 50 hours per week working.  Most visitors to Generally Thinking are from the UK and US, so you’re probably near the top end of that scale too; congratulations if you’re not.  In any case, career seems like a good place to start.

You’ve got two possibilities:

1) Rearrange your present work so that it involves your strengths
2) Switch to work that does involve your strengths

Which of these you do, is up to you.  I suppose it depends on how much you like what you’re doing now balanced against how much you want to fit your strengths into your career.  If your current career doesn’t appear to make use of your identified strengths, don’t immediately conclude you’re miscast, because using option 1 you might later find yourself a good fit.


Here you have to discover what strengths you are currently using, then see if you can add the other ones into your role.  Your position might employ one or two of your strengths really well, then it’s a matter of finding ways to add the others in.  If you can’t find ways to add any of your strengths in, you’re currently going against the grain.  You should consider what’s keeping you doing this, and consider Option 2.  If your current role is temporary or a stepping-stone job, you’ll still enjoy it more if you can rearrange the way you do it around your strengths.

“You might have to get a bit creative, to blend your strengths into your career.”

The various books on strengths offer basic examples on how to rearrange, such as a cashier with the strength of social intelligence, who started engaging customers more in conversation at the checkout.  If I described how to use every strength in every possible role, I’d be about 80 when I finished this article, so you’ll have to get a bit creative.  But since Gallup discovered that successful people find ways to do this, it’s potentially worth the effort.

The other day I was reading interviews with two rock-band front-men, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, and Tim Wheeler of Ash.  Here’s an example of two people in the same role, unconsciously fitting their strengths into it.  Rivers is shy, introspective, and did an English Literature course at Harvard.  He’d probably show up strengths like intellection, analyse or learner.  Tim seems more charismatic and confident, he parties a lot and might have the strengths of Woo and Positivity.  Both are the primary songwriters for their respective bands, so their biggest strength will surely be Arranger, or the VIA strength Creativity.

But they seem to lever their other apparent strengths into the mix too: Rivers analysed songs by the Beatles, Nirvana and other bands, and created a file called “The Encyclopaedia of Pop”.  He then extrapolated a songwriting framework from this analysis, which he uses to write his songs.  Tim writes upbeat and positive songs, drawing inspiration from things like sunshine and having a good time.  Both of them are very successful, with multiple platinum selling albums.


Option 2 is easier from the point of view of fitting your strengths in, but harder in that you’re making a big change, which most people don’t find easy.  If it’s time to make a change, then looking at your strengths, it should be fairly easy to draft up ideas for roles which involve them.

“Switching careers makes it easier to use your strengths, but most people don’t find change easy.”

For example, looking at my own readout in the last article, my strengths were based around learning, curiosity, critical thinking, and forward thinking.  So I’m suited perhaps for something like research, where all of these come into play, and also something like writing or blogging, so I can make extra pocket money by writing about what I learn, and of course learn more about it in the process.  Hmm, what a coincidence, this happens to be the direction I’m heading in.  Don’t say I don’t practice what I preach!

What strengths can’t tell you is the field you could go into – Gallup’s research did not indicate a relationship between fields and strengths.  For example, you could play the role ‘journalist’ in any number of fields: science, politics, celebrity gossip, and so on.  Strengths offer guidance on the role – not the field.

Managing Expectations

Remember, your aim is to look for ways to make more use of your natural and spontaneous ways of responding to the world.  You’re not searching for something that you’re already a master at!   Excellence will come later.  Faster, but still later.

This is an important point to remember, which Marcus Buckingham makes clear in Now, Discover Your Strengths.  What if you arrange your whole life around your strengths, and then still don’t find the good life?   You’ve already given it your best shot, and with your strengths, no less!  Buckingham says “When the cause of failure seems to have nothing to do with who we really are, we can accept it.”  I’ve already drilled into you that your strengths are an enduring part of you, so what kind of torment would partner this kind of failure?  Buckingham suggests the fear of this could put you off trying.

“It seems more sensible to deal with a wounded ego than to not bother trying anything.”

If you never give it your best shot, you’ve always got an excuse, haven’t you?  Like the would-be suitor in a nightclub who acts like a little strange when talking to the attractive girl; a little bit too cocky, a little bit exaggerated.  If the girl turns him down, it’s not him she’s rejecting, it’s the act.  His ego and pride are protected, safe and sound.  But of course what he gains in ego-protection he loses in effectiveness.

I think the parallels here are similar.  To me, it seems more sensible to find ways of dealing with a wounded ego than to not bother at all.  There’s all kinds of ways out there that offer to do that; meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy, progressive exposure, and so on.

To bring up a final question for this section: is feeling a certain way really a good reason not to do something?  I had this idea when thinking about Steve Olson’s article on procrastination.  I’m not talking about safety and survival instincts; if you feel a dark alley is unsafe, that definitely is a good reason not to walk down it.  I mean more benign decisions.  There’s a lot going on in this culture – more people around than our brains are really designed to cope with, then there’s media, bills, careers; a whole cacophony of expectations placed on us.  How would you know whether a certain feeling you have should be trusted, like you would with the dark alley, or when it comes from something that you’ve arbitrarily integrated from the outside, with no particular relevance to you personally?  I don’t know the answer to this, so please let me know if you do.

Add skills and knowledge

Using the strengths more in your life is a road to happiness, more engagement, and all sorts of other benefits.  It’s also a road to greater performance – a better chance of reaching excellence in your chosen field.  But as we’ve just seen, you still need to hone your strengths further, by deliberately practising them, and also by adding in skills and knowledge.

“To get ‘consistent, near-perfect performance’, you need skills and knowledge, as well as talent.”

The reason for this is summed up in Gallup’s definition of a strength – to achieve “consistent, near perfect performance”.  In fact, Gallup define a strength as a strength only after the skills and knowledge have been appropriated.  They call them ‘talents’ prior to this; I’ve just used the term strength for convenience, and to compare models.  To get this level of performance, you may need to focus your efforts on one or more strengths, like the rockstars I mentioned above, who apparently focus on creativity, and use the other strengths to support this effort.  This was an easy choice for me too, as three of my top five strengths are mental/reflective, so it was obvious that this is the place to focus.

The skills and knowledge you pick up will be experiential as well as deliberately researched or taught.  Some things you simply can’t get except through hands on practice, other things you can get from a book or trainer.  Our rockstars above may have had knowledge training in the form of music theory, skills training through tuition and practising scales, but their unique style of guitar playing and song-writing, that can only come through hands on practice – allowing their brains and nervous systems to end up with pathways and connections, causing them to respond to a guitar and to music the way they do.  There’s really no way of getting around this.

This just about wraps up this series on strengths, barring a couple of loose-ends to tie up (managing weaknesses, for one).  Thanks for reading, hope it’s been useful!

Recommended Reading:

[Lego Strength image by Coldpants]

Four ways to boost your creativity when writing

Whether you’re writing a novel, a blog, or an essay, the biggest problem has to be writer’s block. It’s so annoying when you’ve actually gotten past the initial procrastination hurdle (not an easy task in itself), you’re sat at your desk and you WANT to write – but it’s just not coming out. Or, what is coming out isn’t to your liking.

Trust me, I know how that feels; I started this blog post in 2005.

Here are a few tips you can try to give your creativity a little boost.

1) Get the right emotions for the job

Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Our emotions serve evolutionarily adapted purposes. We have different emotions because they each solve different evolutionary problems. Anger helps to stop people transgressing against us, love helps us keep a mate, fear keeps us out of danger, and so on. Because they are specialised, emotions have different effects on our perceptual system, and the ways we think. ‘Negative’ emotions tend to narrow our though-action repertoire, while ‘positive’ emotions tend to broaden them (Fredrickson, 2001 – PDF).

In other words, when you’re in a lower mood, you’re more likely to look at the little details, when your mood is high, you’re see the bigger picture and be more creative.

So whenever you’re brainstorming or coming up with new ideas, boost your mood with something uplifting, heart warming, or side-splitting. I like this.

Whenever you’re editing or proof-reading, put some downbeat music on, and get to work.

(We might also suppose that continuing a long argument with your spouse is a bad idea – you’re both focusing too much on the things that put you into that negative state. Sleep on it and discuss in the morning.)

2) Take breaks

Whenever you’re doing work that requires focused, mental effort, you’re draining your mental willpower reserves. Once these are depleted, performance suffers and you suddenly can’t be bothered to work. Take regular breaks and do something that requires no effort to attend to – spending time in nature has proven to be a useful exercise to this end (See the extensive work of the Kaplans). Also, make sure you don’t go hungry while working – the fuel that willpower runs on is glucose (Gailliot and Baumeister, 2007) – empty stomach equals poorer mental performance.

3) Use novelty to your advantage

Short answer: If you want a novel idea, expose your brain to novelty.

Long answer: The area of the brain associated with novelty is thought to be the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA). The VTA is part of the dopamine system, in other words, the reward system. When we perceive novelty, our brain signals us to explore, because it is always looking for rewards. The brain likes novelty.

What’s more, these brain areas are connected to the hippocampus, which is involved in learning. You can see where I’m going with this; enhanced learning might occur in the context of novelty. On top of that, a novel environment exposes you to a different set of priming, which themselves trigger different areas in your brain.

There’s the science, here’s the simple advice – go somewhere new to write. Try a park, a library, a coffee shop you’ve never been to. Try a car park, a zoo, a big wheel, try wearing different clothes, talking to different people. Use novelty to your advantage and see if your brain doesn’t come up with some new ideas.

4) Try the SCAMPER method

Luciano Passuello of LiteMind discusses the SCAMPER method of creative problem solving. This is going to be more effective when you have a specific writing problem you are ‘stuck’ on. It is essentially a list of questions which help you to look at the problem from 7 different angles, each represented by the SCAMPER acronym. Not all of these angles will be appropriate to your specific writing problem, but I’ve found it really useful at various times. I’m interested to hear how you get on with this method, so let me know if you use it – leave a comment with your experiences!

Get to it

I’m certain that by using one or more or these techniques (all four if necessary) you’ll be able to make at least SOME headway on your writing. Let me know how you get on!