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The power of compliments for young people, by young people

After receiving positive feedback from peers, socially anxious young people feel as confident about themselves as their non-anxious counterparts. 'These young people are then able to handle new social situations more confidently,’ says Leiden psychologist Anne Miers. Her research is published in the scientific journal Behaviour Change.

Anne Miers’ ambition is to be able to positively influence the thoughts and behaviour of young people who suffer from social anxiety. To have the courage to engage in a social situation, it’s important to think positively about yourself: ‘I can do that; I can handle it.’  Positive feedback from peers can help you create those positive thoughts about yourself  and make you feel more confident. ‘The power of positive peers,’ is how Miers, a developmental psychologist, describes it.  

Social capital

Adolescents are in a phase of life where they are very sensitive to influences from their peers. ‘A lot less attention is paid to the power of positive feedback from peers than to negative effects and peer pressure,’ Miers believes. ‘Don’t hang out with the wrong crowd,’ is the advice often given to young people. She herself focuses on the positive aspects and regards young people’s sensitivity to their social environment as a positive attribute, a form of social capital. This prompted her to study the effect of positive feedback by peers on socially anxious young people in late adolescence and early adulthood. 

Positive feedback = more positive thinking

Miers talks enthusiastically about her scientific publication. She is the sole author, although this doesn’t mean that she conducted all the research alone. She and fellow scientists carefully scrutinized the subject of her research, and she carried out the study together with her research  master’s students. Two groups of participants were recruited among students in Leiden, specifically young people with a high level of social anxiety and  those who are less socially anxious. The participants were given positive and neutral feedback randomly on a digital presentation. Miers: ‘The socially anxious participants only developed more positive thoughts about themselves after receiving positive feedback. For the participants who had a low level of social anxiety, the kind of feedback made no difference; they improved after both types of feedback. This shows that the type of feedback is important for those young people who have a high level of social anxiety.’  

From experiment to intervention?

Miers stresses that her study is experimental, but that she is at the same time working towards possibilities for interventions. The question she wants to answer is: ‘Do you achieve more impact with these vulnerable young people by involving peers than if they only get feedback from adults? Ultimately, you want to influence not only their thought processes, but also their behaviour.’  She is therefore looking towards the future and is considering the possibility, as a complement to a clinical intervention, of involving peers from whom socially anxious adolescents can learn how to cope with social situations. But first, a similar study is on the cards among a much younger target group, first- and second-year pupils in high school. This study is being funded with a grant from the Leiden University Fund (LUF)

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