Behavioral Inhibition and the Communication of Public Speaking State Anxiety

By Sawyer, Chris R.; Behnke, Ralph R. | Western Journal of Communication, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Behavioral Inhibition and the Communication of Public Speaking State Anxiety


Sawyer, Chris R., Behnke, Ralph R., Western Journal of Communication


Clevenger (1959) observed that speaker-reported and audience-observed speaker state anxiety operate at only a moderate level of interdependence. Since then, a number of investigators have confirmed Clevenger's observation and have substantiated the tendency for audiences to underestimate the anxiety states of speakers (Behnke, Sawyer, & King, 1987; Martini, Behnke, & King, 1992; Sawyer & Behnke, 1990; Sawyer & Behnke, 1996). Focusing on the communication of public speaking anxiety, researchers have attempted to solve the riddle of how an intense emotional state, namely speech anxiety, is consistently underestimated by a large number of persons observing it. For example, Sawyer and Behnke (1990) reported that speaker self-monitoring level directly contributed to how well speaker emotional states were correctly interpreted by audiences. Later, these same investigators found that speaker behavior, rather than audience decoding ability, was primarily responsible for accurate detection of public speaking state anxiety (Sawyer & Behnke, 1996). These previous studies have not examined the underlying processes that influence speaker behavior. The perspective provided by Buck's (1994; Buck & Ginsburg, 1997) readout theory of emotion is focused on this concern.

Theoretical Perspective

Communication of Emotion

Generally conceived, the communication of emotion stems from an interaction between speaker encoding skill and the decoding ability of receivers (Argyle, 1988; Buck, 1984; Buck & Ginsburg, 1997; Snodgrass & Rosenthal, 1985). Specifically, the term "encoding skill" represents the extent to which a speaker's actual emotional state is reflected by his/her behavior (Buck, 1984, p. 169). Conversely, a person's "decoding ability" refers to the tendency to detect the emotional states of others (Buck, 1984, p. 259). In his readout theory of emotion (RTE), Buck (1994; 1991) proposes that social and biological evolution have contributed to the development of neurological substrates for communication. The accuracy with which animals encode and decode information ultimately requires the operation of specialized circuits in the brain that promote the expression and deciphering of affective states. Later, Buck (1997) stresses that these unmonitored expressions of an organism's affective state are nonpropositional, that is, they act as true "readouts" of emotional condition that can be interpreted by other organisms. Over the long course of evolution, each species develops strategies for managing emotional readouts more effectively. Consequently, the stream of spontaneous emotional communication is said to be controlled by neurological mechanisms (Buck, 1997).

Primitive emotions are frequently related to the biological success of a species (Buck & Ginsburg, 1991). Anger, for example, is often expressed in menacing vocal and facial displays such as growling or bearing teeth. If interpreted by a potential predator as intimidating signs of aggression, these cues will enhance the prospects for survival. However, to the extent that expressions of anger provoke attacks from more aggressive opponents, the probability of survival decreases. Therefore, Buck (1984) argues, many species have developed an array of adaptive responses to physical challenge including strategies for managing threats for which the prospect of catastrophe is, temporarily, uncertain. Buck (1984) advances inhibition processes as one such mechanism.

Behavioral Inhibition

According to Buck's (1984; 1997) theory of emotional communication, sending accuracy is often attenuated by the automatic suppression of behavior when a novel threat is present, a position he adapted from Gray (1975), an English neurophysiologist and psychological theorist. Gray's (1975; 1995; Gray & McNaughton, 2000) theory of anxiety, which was based on Eysenck's (1957) work, sought to identify specific sub-systems of the human nervous system responsible for emotional expression.

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