Why Audience Participation Is So Terrifying

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Photo: Will Heath/NBC via Getty Images

Picture this: You arrive late at a comedy club and see that the only seats left are in the front row. Do you bound forward without a second thought? Or do you nervously slink over to your chair and immediately order a drink to ease your nerves? As the comic begins to scan the crowd for someone to use in a joke, do you eagerly make eye contact, or do you slump down in your seat and pray that some other poor sucker will be the one to capture their attention?

If the prospect of audience participation — whether at a play, a concert, a magic show, or any other type of performance — fills you with unspeakable dread, you’re far from alone. There isn’t much research out there specifically on the fear of audience participation, but we know that the fear of public speaking is very common. So common, in fact, that a key part of the Trier Social Stress Test — which has been called “the human experimental gold standard for evaluating the neurobiology of acute stress,” — involves asking participants to give a presentation.

Thompson Davis, the director of the Psychological Services Center at Louisiana State University, has written extensively about specific phobias and social anxiety disorder, and has worked with plenty of patients dealing with anxiety around public speaking. Davis says that a social-psychology concept known as the Yerkes-Dodson law helps explain the terror of audience participation: Basically, there’s a bell curve when it comes to stress and achievement. A bit of stress is productive — but too little means you’ll never feel motivated to do much of anything, while too much can turn you into a quivering mess.

One thing that helps keep public speaking on the constructive-stress side of the curve is the possibility of preparation. Neuroscientist Antonia Hamilton of University College London says that fear of judgment may be handled by the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that’s also linked to fear conditioning — and concerns about being judged are common in lots of speaking scenarios, from giving a wedding toast to calling your elected officials. Yet these sorts of situations allow the speaker time to develop some expertise, or at least the semblance of it.

The spontaneity of an audience-participation situation, on the other hand, can be stressful because it eliminates that preparation time and adds a layer of spontaneity. It also subverts expectations for the role you’re expected to play, Davis explains: Generally, audiences are supposed to be passive. Performers who single out audience members for an active role have “flipped the script,” he says, turning a relaxing activity into anything but.

This can be especially distressing for shy people or people with social anxiety disorder, who often rely on a predictable and limited set of scripts for social interaction and have a lower tolerance for uncertainty. This isn’t to say that everybody who sits at the back of a performance has full-blown social anxiety; most don’t. Davis explains that a diagnosis hinges in large part on “a notion of interference in one’s life” — that is, if a reluctance to attend performances is causing “undue stress” or somehow getting in the way of everyday life, it might be time to speak with a therapist.

But why not just avoid insult comedians, improv shows, immersive theater productions, and any other performances with even a dim possibility of being singled out? If that’s the only setting that triggers your anxiety, then sure, it’s an option. But in Davis’s clinical experience, fears related to social interaction “have a nasty habit of what we call generalizing. They get a little bigger and a little bigger and a little bigger.”

If treatment is warranted, Davis recommends a form of exposure therapy that gets at the patient’s “catastrophic cognitions”: Why exactly is the prospect of being judged by others at a performance so devastating? How can troubling thoughts be altered? And what small steps — like attending, say, classical music concerts, and slowly building up to more unpredictable performances — can a person take?

Virtual-reality therapy is also being used to make people, including those with autism, more comfortable with speaking in different social settings. Hamilton explains that people can practice with a friendly audience or a hostile one, with the comfort of knowing that neither is real.

Public-speaking coach Meera Manek provides a different perspective. As both a stand-up comedian and a member of the public-speaking organization Toastmasters, Manek has plenty of experience with people who shy away from the spotlight. “The job of the comedian … is to make the audience feel so comfortable that they overcome that fear of participation,” she says. “You want to laugh at the end of the day, and the best way to do that is to make sure that the audience is on your side.” She’s not of the school of comedians who enjoy making audience members feel uncomfortable.

So who knows? Even if you find yourself stuck in the front row, the person onstage may be sympathetic to your plight. Still, it couldn’t hurt to prep a few anecdotes ahead of time, just in case — that way, if disaster strikes, at least you’re prepared.

Why Audience Participation Is So Terrifying