Is Approach Anxiety a Defect?

by Eric Disco
Sep 13

Is there something wrong with me because I experience approach anxiety?

This is one of the biggest questions guys ask.

The paralysis of approach anxiety can feel like a disease, as if you have a mental illness for experiencing it.

I could tell you that most guys experience some type of fear when trying to initiate interactions with women.

Talk to any random guy and ask him how he would feel walking across a bar and starting a conversation with a woman.

Most will say that they can’t do it or have a lot of trouble doing it.

But the one big wrench in the idea that approach anxiety is normal is that there are guys who do not experience it.

Yes, perhaps most guys do experience approach anxiety.

But there are people out there who can `naturally’ (without any training or help) walk up to a stranger and start a conversation.

If this is the case, it would seem, not that there was something wrong with the guy who can do it, but that there is something wrong with the guy who can’t do it.

It would seem that the person who has too much fear to approach a stranger must be experiencing some sort of genetic behavioral disadvantage.

This, in fact is not the case.

The guy who can approach a woman and the guy who can’t are simply two different variations of evolutionary behavioral strategies.

In the Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins talks about the evolution of behavioral strategies in groups and calculates their effect on long-term longevity of individuals within a group.

To understand the effect of individual behaviors on group survival, we need to understand the concept of an evolutionary stable strategy.

An evolutionary stable strategy describes tactics employed by individual organisms when competing with one another for a given resource. These tactics can be behavioral or structural, and the organism does not consciously choose them, but adopts them as a natural consequence of evolution. Both structures and behaviors are heritable (capable of being inherited), and as some are successful and some fail, only the better ones are passed on.

The idea of evolutionary stable strategy (ESS) was first conceived by the British biologist John Maynard Smith in 1974. The idea is that one strategy in a given contest, on average, will win over any other strategy. The strategy should also have the benefit of doing well when pitted against opponents employing the same strategy. This is important, because a successful strategy is likely to be common and an organism will probably have to compete with others who are employing it. There does not necessarily have to be a single evolutionary strategy. It can be a combination of strategies, or a combination of individuals who each employ only one strategy.

The workings of an evolutionary stable strategy can be illustrated by looking at a simple system of two strategies. Suppose a given population of organisms has to compete for food. In this particular population, there only two possible strategies. Individuals can act like “hawks,” which will fight over a piece of food viciously and retreat only when seriously injured, or they can act like “doves,” which will try to puff their chests out and pretend to be tough, but run away at the threat of any serious challenge. Hawks will always beat doves. When hawks fight hawks, there will be a winner and a loser, but the loser will be seriously injured. Doves fighting doves will display at one another for a period of time before giving up. Neither will be injured, but they will have wasted some of the time they could have spent looking for food.

Which is the better strategy? That is, is it better to be a hawk and win against all doves, but at the risk of serious injury, or is it better to be a dove and risk being trounced by hawks? To answer this question, the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins assigned arbitrary scores to wins and losses. He awarded 50 points for a win, zero points for losing, minus 100 points for serious injury, and minus 10 points for wasting time with excessive displays. Under Dawkins’s system, assuming a record of equal wins and losses for evenly matched competitors, a bird population consisting exclusively of doves would reward individuals with an average of 15 points per contest. If a dove wins a contest against a dove, he gets 50 points less 10 points for wasting time, for a total of 40 points. The loser gets minus 10. If an individual wins half his contests, his score averages to 15 points (40 points minus 10 points divided by 2).

We cannot assume that a population of only doves would be evolutionarily stable. Although such a population seems beneficial for all the individuals involved, what happens if a mutation takes place, or a sudden immigrant flies in, and a hawk appears in the population? The hawk will win all his contests, and reproduce quickly and often. Before long, the successful hawks could possibly drive the doves into extinction. However, at a price of minus 100 points per loss, a hawk surrounded exclusively by hawks will average minus 25 points, whereas a dove surrounded by hawks will score zero. So in a population of only hawks, doves will tend to do better. A population of only hawks would not be evolutionarily stable, either. Over time, a single strategy cannot sustain itself.

So what strategy is evolutionarily stable? In this particular population, the stable strategy is a mixture of doves and hawks. This could mean that individuals never change their strategies and that a combination of both strategies is stable, or that individuals may employ either strategy and switch strategies as often as they please. In this case, the average individual will employ the most advantageous proportions of either strategy. In a system with 12 individuals-5 doves and 7 hawks-the average payoff for any individual is 6.25. Thus, we could have 5 individuals that were always doves and 7 that were always hawks, or 12 individuals that were doves 5/12 of the time and hawks the rest.

In the real world, strategies are far more complex than this. However, the example provided gives us an understanding of how behavioral strategies evolve:

It lets us see that in any given system, multiple behavioral strategies are likely to evolve and survive.

Some of those strategies are more aggressive. Others are more conservative.

In millions of years of human evolution within groups, more conservative strategies prevailed. These strategies favored caution over boldness.

We can hypothesize why.

Perhaps there was too much cost in a group with all individuals taking initiative with all others.

Likely, a group with a minority of bold individuals and a majority of cautious individuals was the most stable.

This means most individuals within a group were likely to adopt a cautious strategy rather than a bold one as they matured into adulthood.

In our modern day world, this has actually served us well.

A cautious strategy is, by far, the best strategy in almost every aspect of life.

You may be tempted to physically attack someone who angers you, but you choose not to.

There is the threat of jail, but more so than that, you feel inhibited in that situation.

So you don’t take action.

This benefits you and society. There are a minority of people who do not experience this inhibition and most of them end up in jail.

Likewise, you may feel compelled to take initiative with a woman whom you’re attracted to.

But you don’t.

Again, this strategy serves you.

You don’t want to relentlessly hit on your friend’s girlfriend, strangers’ wives, or women at work. Your inhibition serves you well.

But then we are left with many more situations where it would not be a problem to start a conversation with an attractive stranger.

Here is where your strategy backfires.

Because of inhibition, you don’t take initiative with that stranger.

Getting past approach anxiety involves adopting a different strategy, a more aggressive strategy, for a small portion of your life.

Human beings are smart and we learn our lessons well.

It’s difficult to change our behavior, particularly one that has been enforced through years and years of non-action.

But you can learn to be more aggressive in situations you deem appropriate, say in a boxing ring in a sanctioned environment.

You can also learn to be more aggressive when it comes to starting conversations with those attractive women you don’t know.


posted in Initiative and Inhibition, Self-Improvement Strategies

13 responses
MrAntiquity says:


Good post. I like the use of game theory/cost-benfit analysis etc. here :)

I think this is more valid than some of the focus on rejection. There are also aspects of guilt/perceived morality/social conscience that come into play:

If you could go and steal, say, a Wii knowing (almost) full well that you wouldn’t get caught, would you? Most of us wouldn’t because of some sort of social conscience.

But–we drive cars all the time, right? Even though our odds of getting hurt in a car accident at some point are actually fairly high. But there’s no social code that’s being broken here.

So risk-benefit comes into play, but there’s also a feeling of social wrongdoing that gets in the way–I think that’s far stronger than any particular ‘fear of rejection’.

Why? Well, say you get a girl’s phone number. Unless you’re really, really scared–you’ll call her, right? YOu’ll ask her for a date. You’ll be nervous, but usually you’ll do it. Because the phone call and the ask is EXPECTED. It’s what you’re supposed to do within the social code–just like asking a girl to marry you, or whatever else.

But initiating uninvited contact–that’s breaking the code–with (imagined) consequences and dangers. Once you’ve broken that code (and are involved in interaction), then you’re back within social acceptability.

I should read that book…

Mike says:

I’m not sure I agree with all of this. I think that many of us fear the approach because, depending on who we approach, we risk losing status with those in our environment. And that of course is bad jujus for us.

Anyway, as I wrote about in my other post, I believe we’ve come to the above conclusion from previous social experiences.

But yeah, if we thought too hard about the risks of piloting a 3000 box of steel at 60 mph where not too far away a stranger is piloting another 3000 box of steel at 60 mph the other way, we might not feel as comfortable driving…

Eric Disco says:

Those social emotions arise typically when maintaining status within the group, as human nature is inherently clamoring for higher status. I would argue that clamoring for higher status (validation, group approval, etc.) is THE defining aspect of human nature.


Eric Disco says:

Right. That feeling of breaking the ‘social code’ is the strategy playing out. We don’t consciously make a decision to use a more aggressive or cautious strategy. It is not a strategy in the sense that we are planning something out. Instead we subconsciously adopt this style of interaction with others based both on genetics and our learning in our environment.

This ‘strategy’ is your body reacting in a learned way, your body imparting social emotions on you at certain times–fear, guilt, shame–so that you continue to act within its prescribed and acceptable range of activities.


Mike says:

Eric, I think I agree with you. I actually do a lot of cold approaches–mostly during the day–and I’ve gotten my fair share of dates. But I still have some approach anxiety when I do it in the town I live in.

If I am at a place where I can be sure no one knows me? My AA is a lot less. See the big thought that I have when I am in the town where I live–”Have I seen this girl from somewhere else before?”–isn’t going through my head when I am in new location.

It’s a trade-off. If I see a girl I want to meet, likely the only way I will get to have her as a girlfriend or friend is if I go over and approach her then and there. As someone who prides himself on taking chances, I usually will go over. BUT I am aware that by doing so, I could be risking loss of status. In general, I won’t lose status if I keep eyes forward and focus on my task at hand of getting lunch, buying a good shirt, finishing my workout…

I will even admit to feeling RELIEF when I see that the girl has bling on her ring finger. I know she isn’t available and I can forget about her and move on.

By the way Eric, I got your She’s Six Steps Away. Great program! I really like how you included some sample real approaches which you did. Thanks for putting this program out!

Mike says:

This is my take RE approach anxiety. If we hit on a woman and it doesn’t go well, there is a real risk of being socially ostracized. This is true even today for those of us who aren’t living in a big city. See we lose some status, and we are likely to see these people around at some point or another whether we like it or not.

–If I hit on a girl and she happens to be an acquaintance’s girlfriend or my boss’ daughter without my knowing it, it could get really awkward.

–If I hit on a girl in the supermarket and she reacts negatively, then I may lose status with those who saw the interaction. And if I live in a smaller town, I could run into these people again.

–If I do a cold approach on a girl whom I happened to cold-approach before but not recognize that I did it (not unlikely as in a smaller community we tend to see the same people over and over, and women can look very different from month to month depending on how they do their hair and how they dress) then I may lose status with her. See the first time I approached, our interaction might have left her feeling “special”. This time she wonders if this is just how I operate.

We might not be consciously thinking this, but it was drilled into us. This is where I disagree with others’ take on where AA came from. **I’m not sure if it was built into our genes as instead it was ingrained into us from earlier social experiences in our own lives.** Like when we asked out a girl in junior high and she turned us down and word got out of that and we were made fun of. Or when we hear women talk about a guy who approaches women a lot as a “creeper”.

I will tell you a story. A long time ago, myself and a bunch of friends (male and female) were out. A guy came up and hit on one of the females in the group. He had a tough sell, because this guy had hit on *two* of the guys’ girlfriends previously. Most of the group had this guy pegged as a “creeper”. Even though the girl in our group didn’t know about this guy’s reputation herself, she could tell that much of the rest of the group didn’t like him, and so he was blown off.

Lee says:

There is no downside to accidentally approaching the same woman twice. It happens to me all the time. Usually, I think it’s hilarious and just laugh too hard to say anything but when I manage to get a grip on myself, I say “Isn’t it amazing that the universe has brought us together like this again? Let’s try to figure out what it’s trying to tell us.” I live in New York so there are no consequences to being labeled a creeper. I am sure many women have done that and I just don’t care. There are many times that women have called me out on serially approaching other women. When they do that, I say. “Absolutely. When I see a pretty girl, it makes me want to say hello. I find most women to be pretty friendly. You’re not going to try to prove me wrong, are you?”


Nine says:

Nerd Alert!

Pradeep says:

this is taken from the blog of tim ferris , where I believe he quotes a book written by two gentlemen – Ben Casnocha & Reid Hoffman – The startup of you – while the advice pertains mostly to career moves, simply substitute meeting women instead of career, and it still makes good sense. In a nutshell , its more costly to miss the sign of a threat than to miss the sign of an opportunity . To quote ” Evolution via natural selection shaped the human brain over millions of years to achieve a simple goal: stay alive long enough to reproduce and raise offspring. As a result, we react faster, stronger, and harder to threats and unpleasantness than to opportunities and pleasures. There’s a red alert in our brain for bad things, but no green alert for equivalently good things. Sticks get our attention and carrots do not, because avoiding sticks is what mattered to staying alive.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson sums up this “negativity bias” nicely:
“To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).”

Mike says:

Great answer Pradeep. It explains a lot!

I think there are still some people have more of a “green alert” mentality that can be learned, just, as I discussed above, how I think approach anxiety is learned through embarrassing experiences approaching members of the opposite sex.

That said, @Lee I admire your attitude!

Lee says:

Awesome quote! Love it.

Lee says:


The down side of rejection is in your head. If you live in a community so small that its judgement will hamper your future romantic success, you should move. In my experience, that is rare. Meaning, the cost is in your head. There is no payoff for being the guy everyone sorta kinda likes. I’d much rather be the guy hated by 80% of the population and loved to death by the other 20%. One of the lessons of ESS is that appealing to the average is not where you want to be.


Dogen says:

I’m sorry but this is all speculative bullshit, and wierdly popular by westerners, explaining everything by evolution. The problem is in fact caused by social conditioning, or as others may call it, upbringing. The way people respond to strangers is generally negative due to preconceived negative notions. You could easily get rid of approach anxiety by deprogramming yourself. Problem is that deprogramming is not so easy.