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

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