What causes social phobia?
Social phobia seems to run in families, with genes believed to exert a moderate influence. Heritability has been estimated at around 40%. However, what is inherited is probably a vulnerability to anxiety in general rather than social phobia in particular.
Making a larger contribution are what scientists call non-shared environmental factors: that is, the experiences that are personal to each of us alone. What those environmental factors might be is mostly unclear. There is, though, some evidence to suggest that parents who are overly protective of their children, or who reject them, may contribute to the development of social phobia in their offspring. Certainly, it seems reasonable to assume that rejection could harm a child’s self-confidence, and leave them with some unhelpful assumptions about themselves and other people. In the case of overprotective parents, it’s been suggested that they may limit their children’s opportunities to develop social skills.
For some theorists, social phobia is a remnant from human prehistory. Our ancestors had two options when faced with threats from within the social group: to stand up for themselves or submit. Fighting and losing could result in marginalization — or, even worse, expulsion from the group. With so much at stake, less aggressive or domineering individuals may have found it wiser simply to accept a lower social status.
What we see in social phobia today, so the theory goes, is a damaging internalization of this once useful strategy. Acutely sensitive to social rank, these individuals regard themselves as inferior. Because they are convinced that their inadequacy will be evident to all, they dread social situations. If they can’t avoid such situations entirely, people with social phobia will try to be as meek and self-effacing as possible.
Does the theory stand up to scrutiny? While plausible for some cases of shyness and less severe social anxiety, it hasn’t been properly tested in people with social phobia. So, for now at least, it’s largely speculation.