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Wallflower’s Science: Psychology of the “Awkward”
By Heath Shive
Everyone has awkward moments.
But some people are chronically awkward. They can blush at the smallest slight or notice. They can have trouble recognizing a cue to approach, hug, or kiss. They can freeze when confronted, stammer when talking, or be silent when everyone else talks.
The English word “awkward” is derived from the Old Norse word afgr – which means “facing the wrong way.” That’s how it feels, right?
Psychologist Ty Tashiro wrote a book about this feeling entitled Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome.
To the science!
An Awkward Focus?
A study led by Ralph Adolphs examined “face-processing strategies” used by awkward people – specifically the parents of autistic children, who sometimes exhibited “unusual social behavior” themselves. They were often seen as aloof (i.e., socially awkward).
The psychologists studied how awkward people read faces as opposed to how non-awkward people read faces. They found that awkward people have a tendency to focus on the mouth, but socially fluent people focus on the eyes.
The eye region is a more accurate sector for emotion-reading. A “smile” is easier to fake with your mouth than with your eyes.
Whether by instinct or bad habit, awkward people have a harder time reading emotion because they might be looking in the wrong place!
An Awkward Mind?
One group of researchers used fMRI images to compare the brain activity of autistic and non-autistic people as they were asked to guess emotions depicted in photos. Perhaps predictably, non-autistic people gauged the emotions more accurately. But more importantly, brain activity was different for autistic people as they performed this task!
The autism group activated the frontal component of their brain less than the non-autistic group. Furthermore, the autistic group didn’t use their amygdala at all!
The researchers concluded that “social intelligence” is genuinely different than “general intelligence” because it requires use of different parts of the brain!
There’s a huge difference between autism and chronic awkwardness. But their brain activity could be similar – with only a difference in intensity.
Tashiro’s book is not just about the science of awkwardness, but a story of his own awkward social life (and others’ lives) as well.
Awkward people can learn to adapt their social strategies, especially when they understand themselves better.
There are many routes to happiness and personal fulfillment. Are you surprised that your route may be unique?
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Adolphs, Ralph, Michael L. Spezio, Morgan Parlier, and Joseph Piven. “Distinct face-processing strategies in parents of autistic children.” Current Biology 18, no. 14 (2008): 1090-93. Accessed via ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Baron-Cohen, Simon, Howard A. Ring, Sally Wheelwright, Edward T. Bullmore, Mick J. Brammer, Andrew Simmons, and Steve C.R. Williams. “Social intelligence in the normal and autistic brain: an fMRI study.” European Journal of Neuroscience 11, no. 6 (1999): 1891-98. Accessed via onlinelibrary.wiley.com
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.