We’ve all felt social anxiety to a certain extent. Maybe you would do anything to get out of giving a presentation. Maybe your hands get all clammy when you have to walk into a meeting full of people you’re meeting for the first time. Perhaps social anxiety looms larger for you and if you don’t get out of the house on a regular basis just making an appointment to get a haircut becomes insurmountable.
Participants in a virtual reality experiment were less socially anxious in front of an audience when they were made invisible, according to a study recently published in Scientific Reports. The experiment was meant to answer questions presented by recent advances in technology. According to researchers, “Recent advances in materials science suggest that invisibility cloaking of the human body may be possible in the not-so-distant future.”
But is invisibility really a solution? Does an audience want to listen to an invisible speaker? Do you want to take the easy way out? Wouldn’t you get more satisfaction out of facing your fear?
The simple fact is that the anxiety surrounding social situations grows when we practice avoidance. Life as we know it today won’t let us avoid social situations forever. But what if invisibility cloaks, à la Harry Potter, meant that one day avoidance could go on perpetually? What would that look like? I imagine no one would meet anyone and social ineptitude would flourish.
I had a dream recently that I was a “shut-in” and never met my best friend of nearly 20 years. I realized this in the dream and started bawling. It was terrible. I don’t know who, what, where I would be if it weren’t for her. My dream likely stems from the fact that I haven’t gotten out much lately.
If it weren’t for having to face my social fears, I don’t know that I ever would have finished school, gotten a job, got married, gotten into graduate school, and so on. I don’t know how I would have managed simple things like signing for packages or getting my mother’s birthday cake. What is invisibility good for and who wants it?
In a 2013 episode of This American Life, John Hodgman explains his investigation into the same area. He asked people to pick between two superpowers: the power of flight or the power of invisibility.
“Typically, this is how it goes,” Hodgman said. “People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes. People who fly stop taking the bus. Here’s one thing that pretty much no one ever says. I will use my power to fight crime. No one seems to care about crime.”
In fact, many wanted to commit crimes. One woman told him:
I’d go into Barneys. I’d pick out the cashmere sweaters that I like. I’d go into the dressing room. The woman says, how many items? I say five. I go into the dressing room. I put those five sweaters on. And I summon my powers of invisibility in the dressing room. I turn invisible. I walk out, leading her to wonder why there’s a tag hanging from the door that says five and no person inside.
Hodgman’s friend Christine said there was a big difference between choosing to fly and choosing to be invisible. “One superpower is about something that’s obvious. And the other is about something that is hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame,” she said. “A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide. A person who’d choose to be invisible wants clearly to hide themselves.”
The first time I heard that, I thought it was a little harsh. However, the results of the Stockholm study seem to support Christine’s argument — some people prefer to hide themselves.
Does your social anxiety make you want to hide? Sure it does, but what would you have missed out on if you did?
Invisible guy photo available from Shutterstock