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Social Avoidance in Volatile Environments: An Empirical Evaluation of Behavioral Flexibility and Relapse Following Social Exclusion




Ritchey, Carolyn

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Psychological Sciences


Resurgence is a relapse phenomenon comprised of the return of a previously reinforced target response (e.g., social avoidance) when conditions worsen for a more recently reinforced alternative response (e.g., approaching others). Laboratory models of resurgence can be used to understand and characterize social-avoidance behavior in Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), including relapse of social avoidance following unexpected changes in social contingencies. The present study examined behavior of healthy adult participants in a social game with other players purportedly making decisions about whether to share jokes with the participant. In Experiment 1, participants avoided interactions with other players when others viewed jokes only among themselves (exclusion; Phase 1). Participants later approached the same players when they began sharing jokes with the participant (inclusion; Phase 2). Finally, when arranging parametric reductions in social inclusion across groups (Phase 3), we observed resurgence as increased avoidance relative to the inclusion phase. The likelihood of avoidance systematically increased when arranging more ambiguous social outcomes (extinction) versus inclusion. In Experiment 2, we arranged exclusion in Phase 1 before parametrically manipulating inclusion versus extinction between groups in Phase 2. We found that more inclusion in Phase 2 precipitated resurgence of avoidance during extinction testing in Phase 3. Correlation analyses identified relations between avoidance, subjective feelings of inclusion, and self-reported social anxiety. In each experiment, feelings of inclusion were negatively correlated with overall avoidance. Avoidance also tended to increase with greater social anxiety in Phase 1 of both experiments, but the two variables were otherwise uncorrelated. Overall, this novel paradigm and empirical evaluations lay the groundwork for addressing important theoretical questions about relapse following social exclusion and its relation to measures of social anxiety.