Social anxiety (SA) is characterized by marked difficulties in forming and maintaining social relationships. Several theoretical perspectives suggest that individuals with social anxiety tend to prioritize social rank goals. As such, the socially anxious view the world in hierarchical rather than cooperative terms.
One hundred and eleven participants were assigned to one of three subgroups based on SA severity and depressed mood. The resulting subgroups consisted of participants with elevated levels of SA, with and without depressed mood (n = 46 and n = 24, respectively) as well as non-anxious participants (n = 41). By using an asymmetrical Ultimatum Game (UG) in which participants’ identities were concealed, we sought to investigate how SA levels modulate behavioural responses to unfair treatment and to subsequent fairness considerations.
Overall, SA was associated with higher rejection rates of unfair splits, which suggests that participants with elevated SA prioritize fairness over financial maximization. Our findings also show that SA was associated with a tendency toward costly punishment, that is, both SA subgroups engaged in more punitive actions in spite of financial loss.
Taken together, our findings show that given the chance, individuals with elevated SA can resort to active punishment instead than acting submissively in asymmetric interactions, in partial disagreement with theoretical models of SA. We further advance that social rank threats are important drivers of punitive actions in SA. Empirical and practical implications, as well as interpretative caveats, are discussed.