Social Anxiety Disorder: The Next Therapeutic Step

There is a popular stereotype of the socially anxious man finding companionship with a “blow-up” woman. You know, an inflatable balloon-shaped likeness of the real thing. But science fiction, at least as far back as “The Twilight Zone,” has suggested something different: a robot. We are certainly closer to this possibility than ever. And I think it has some interesting ramifications for those among us, both male and female, who are socially anxious.

Imagine a time when you will be able to purchase such a being over the Internet. And let’s further assume that this creature will be capable of doing everything — everything — that a real-life companion can do. These entities would be customized: hair color, complexion, body type, height, sense of humor, level of intelligence, range of interests — you name it, literally, and your imitation mate would be so designed to your specifications.

Now imagine yourself as a socially anxious person staring at your computer screen, preparing to order such a “device.” And let’s further assume that the creature will not immediately seem like a robot to passers-by. That is, there will be little reason to expect that strangers will see you with your new friend and conclude that he or she is a fraud, not the real thing. What will your future be like? And how will society’s future be changed?

First, I suspect that this will be pretty delightful for the lonely and the anxious among us. Moreover, by virtue of having the possibility of regular interaction with the robot, the socially anxious may well discover that they improve their social skills and reduce their anxiety: the repeated “human” contact that they have previously avoided would prove therapeutic. Indeed, there will doubtless be programs for these devices to take the owner through gradually increasing social challenges with built-in therapeutic tips coming from the machine. It will be like having a lover and a doctor all in the same package, one that is available 24/7.

At the same time, however, your new friend just might reduce your incentive to work hard at the process of changing yourself. Your robot won’t require you to face your social challenges unless you want to. She or he won’t be therapeutically programmed unless you desire it. And if you are rude or clumsy in your contact with this machine, you won’t be rejected or criticized unless you want that feature built-in to the range of possible responses from your faux mate.

Even more, now that you have a friend who can be everything you want — a tennis partner, a movie reviewer, a drinking buddy at the ball game — your incentive to make new relationships will be diminished. Why worry about having other friends when your lover can be Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe one day and Einstein the next?

It is likely that we are already seeing the effects of virtual friends and lovers, only on a less dramatic scale than what I’ve described here. From one vantage point, the Internet has been a boon to those whose social anxieties present an obstacle to face-to-face contact, not to mention intimacy. From behind the keyboard, life seems more in control and less dangerous. It provides a place of safety, free from the anticipated humiliation and rejection in situations that others consider manageable.

Those with Social Anxiety Disorder tend to magnify the probability of the worst-case-scenario actually occurring, and assume it would cause a devastation from which recovery would be impossible. But virtual mates might provide a defense against that discomfort at a price: that one now needn’t take on the real-life risk of conventional human contact; and that therefore, the anxious person never would overcome his/her fear.

In this scenario, the world would be full of people who were less solitary, but not necessarily any more socially capable. Those who might go to see a therapist today could well choose to stay at home with their Internet-ordered companion in Tomorrowland. Moreover, to the extent that the World Wide Web has permitted people to be rude behind the cloak of their keyboard¬† — to type or text things that they might not have thought to communicate back in the pre-Internet days — it is possible that we will see a coarsening of daily human interaction and an increase in the incivility that seems to have grown malignantly in the Internet age. Indeed, the Web may be one of the causes of the impatience and frank rudeness that are manifest even waiting in line at the store on a bad day.

A very different unintended consequence of a world of computerized companions would be their impact on the dating marketplace. Real people have flaws — emotional, physical, and intellectual. Given sufficient advancement in science, the programmable companion will be virtually perfect. Even for those of us who have made a good romantic match, the new product would be tough for a real person to beat. Pity the average man or woman trying to outshine the machine-crafted competition! It would make the contestants on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” not worth a second look.

Wait! What about children? Would you want a “perfect,” albeit inhuman mate or a flawed spouse of the conventional kind who is capable of generating offspring? I suspect that the adoption marketplace would change dramatically if even a few people who chose a robotic lover were to seek a real-life child to complete their happy home.

The future I’m envisioning has at least one more feature: it is a world without loss, without grief, without the heartbreak of rejection or divorce or death. Those who choose robotic companions will worry and suffer less because of this escape hatch from the transitory nature of the human condition. The machine will always be there, never suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, never even think of infidelity, and never become infirm.

Pretty terrific, right? I’m not so sure. If you think about falling in love, part of what makes it special is the initial uncertainty — the time discovering who this new person is and what they do and say that is impossible to predict but dazzling. Would we react the same way to a device programmed to be emotionally attached to us that arrives in a box via UPS delivery? A “man” or “woman” who comes with a money-back guarantee of fidelity?

And isn’t the possibility of loss part of what makes us love more strongly? Isn’t the concern we have for the other’s vulnerability — be it our child, spouse, or parent — part of what constitutes love and causes us to feel it in the first place? Isn’t sacrifice — doing for the other — part of what gives the other value? Would we ever feel this kind of concern for an indestructible or fully replaceable machine?

For my part, I think I will take the world as it is, heartbreak and anxiety included, as miserable as those experiences are. There usually is no free lunch in life. Hurdles, be they social anxiety or fear of loss must be overcome. Goals too easily achieved rarely are highly valued. As with many things, Shakespeare put it best, knowing that the anticipation of loss is part of what is expressed in a love song, “… to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”*

For more on Social Anxiety Disorder: Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment.

*The quotation is the last line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII.

The source of the bottom two images is Dark Roasted Blend.