Social anxiety is associated with increased and decreased alcohol use. Alcohol expectancies may help explain these inconsistencies. For example, a fear of losing control in front of others could motivate avoidance of alcohol. Similarly, cognitive models propose that individuals with elevated social anxiety believe they are at risk of behaving inappropriately and embarrassing themselves, indicating that beliefs about losing control over one’s behaviour may be involved in social anxiety. This experiment aimed to manipulate negative alcohol expectancies about losing control to assess their impact on symptoms and processes associated with social anxiety.
Ninety-three undergraduate participants (i.e., non-clinical sample) were randomly assigned to an alcohol, placebo, or control condition and were ‘informed’ that alcohol makes people lose control over their actions/speech. They then completed a ‘getting to know you’ task.
Participants in the placebo and alcohol (versus control) conditions experienced greater anxiety before and during the task and engaged in more post-event processing 24 h later. However, the physiological effects of alcohol influenced results: participants in the alcohol (versus placebo) condition experienced lower anticipatory anxiety, perceived themselves as making a better first impression, and demonstrated a lower reliance on safety behaviour.
Although this experiment used a non-clinical sample, beliefs about losing control may be important to consider when conceptualizing social anxiety and treating associated symptoms from a cognitive-behavioural framework.