Stanley Schachter: Affiliation & Anxiety

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What brings us together, and how can anxiety impact this? These were questions asked by psychologist Stanley Schachter. In this lesson, we'll look at Schachter's studies and see what conclusions he drew.

Stanley Schachter

Do you know why some people feel more comfortable in groups? Stanley Schachter does. Schachter was a 20th century American social psychologist who worked on a variety of studies, ranging from obesity to emotions. One of his most famous experiments, however, was conducted on the topic of affiliation. Psychologically speaking, affiliation is defined as the use of open, friendly, and accepting social behaviors. It's what allows people to form groups and feel comfortable within them. But how do you actually test this? Stanley Schachter found a way.

The Experiment

In 1959, Stanley Schachter proposed a theory that affiliation was often rooted in anxiety. Fear, stress, or nervousness could encourage affiliation-based behaviors. To test this, he developed an experiment.

A group of college women, of roughly the same age and life experiences, were asked to participate in a study. Half of the group was told that they would be given an electric shock that while harmless, would be quite painful. The other half of the group was told that they would be given an electric shock that would be entirely painless. Thus, the researchers created a high-anxiety group (believing they were about to be exposed to pain) and a low-anxiety group (believing they had nothing to fear from the test). The researchers then told the women they had ten minutes until the test would begin, and watched to see how they interacted.

The Results

Over the ten minutes of waiting time, the women in the high-anxiety group started to mingle together. They talked about their concerns, gave each other support, and debated the test. In fact, 63% of the high-anxiety women ended up in a group with other high-anxiety women, while only 37% preferred to spend those ten minutes alone.

Women in the high-anxiety situation tended to congregate together
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In the other room, a different situation was occurring. The low-anxiety women preferred to spend their time without associating with the other participants. In this room, 33% wanted to spend that time with another participant, while the rest remained solitary.

Women in the low-anxiety group preferred to spend the time alone
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The researchers ran the experiment again, this time placing the high-anxiety women in a room that also contained women who were not part of the study (the participants were told these women were waiting to meet with an advisor). Again, the high-anxiety women congregated together, but they did not include the non-participants. Their affiliation, their need to connect to each other, was inclusive only to the women in the high-anxiety test group.

Schachter's Conclusions

These tests demonstrated that Schacther's hypothesis was correct. Anxiety was a strong motivating factor in affiliation. Being scared, stressed, or anxious made people want to bond together. That was the conclusion from the first experiment. The second test, however, added some interesting details. By adding the non-participants to the waiting room, Schachter demonstrated that affiliation is also motivated by shared emotions.

The researchers developed five possible explanations for these behaviors. First, affiliation let the women discuss the possibility of escaping the test (which they were allowed to do) and evaluate if that was a good option. Second, affiliation provided cognitive clarity, giving them the chance to wrap their own minds around their own anxiety. Third, affiliation reduced anxiety through companionship and mutual support. Fourth, affiliation let the women evaluate their anxiety in comparison to the other women. Fifth, affiliation let the women indirectly reduce anxiety by talking about something else.

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