Anxiety, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes, such as increased blood pressure. A new study finds anxiety may shift your perspective from the outer to the inner. Anxious people, a team of University of Iowa researchers discovered, displayed more egocentrism than people experiencing either neutral feelings or anger and disgust.

Anxiety is an everyday feeling. It’s a normal and healthy response to certain experiences, says Dr. Neel Burton, who notes anxiety is “a protective mechanism that has evolved both to prevent us from entering into potentially dangerous situations and to enable us to escape.” Unfortunately, anxiety disorders also are quite common, affecting about one in every five people. They come in a whole variety shapes and sizes, from phobias to PTSD, from conversion disorders to panic disorders. People with anxiety disorders find themselves plagued by recurring, intrusive thoughts. Sometimes they feel the need to avoid a certain experience, such as driving on a highway, because of how much worry it would inspire. Often, they suffer physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat.

Still anxiety, like a cloud casually making its way across the sky, is felt by most of us each and every day. The researchers of the current study decided to look at how this omnipresent emotion affects how we perceive, judge, and process information about others.


The researchers constructed a series of experiments intended to compare anxiety with both neutral feelings as well as other negative, high-arousal emotions. To induce the proper feeling, participants in the first experiment began with an “autobiographical memory” task, where they wrote about an emotionally evocative experience — a time when they felt either very anxious, very angry, or very disgusted. Participants intended to experience only neutral emotions were not asked to perform this task.

Next, on a computer screen, participants saw a picture of another person with a book placed on the desk. They were asked, On which side of the table is the book? If a participant answered from his own and not the other person’s perspective, this was considered egocentric. In another experiment, emotionally primed participants read and interpreted ambiguous emails, and then the researchers determined how much they read their own perceptions into the writers’ intentions.

The researchers discovered anxious participants displayed more egocentrism when interpreting the emails. They also were more likely to describe the placement of the book from their own point-of-view. Digging deeper, the researchers found these effects might be explained, at least in part, by the fact that anxiety is associated with uncertainty. Similar uncertain feelings — such as surprise — also produced an increase in egocentrism.

The researchers believe these results “suggest that incidentally experiencing emotions associated with uncertainty increase reliance on one’s own egocentric perspective when reasoning about the mental states of others.” Intuitively, most of us would agree: Feeling uncertain or anxious, isn't it natural to close up and turn inward?

Source: Todd AR, Forstmann M, Burgmer P, Brooks AW, Galinsky AD. Anxious and Egocentric: How Specific Emotions Influence Perspective Taking. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2015.