The Relationship between Assertiveness and Social Anxiety in College Students

Kimberley A. Moore, Erin E. Hudson, and Brandon F. Smith
Huntington University

Keywords: Assertiveness, ASRI, Social Anxiety, FNE


Past research has examined the multidimensional definition of assertiveness based on the behavior, cognition, and affect of human expression. The current study investigated the validity of a generally accepted aspect of the definition of assertiveness (i.e., assertive persons have little anxiety). It was hypothesized that assertive individuals have low levels of social anxiety. The Assertiveness Self-Report Inventory scale was used to measure assertiveness and the Fear of Negative Evaluation scale was used to measure social anxiety. The scales were given to a convenience sample of undergraduate students attending a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. A Pearson r correlation coefficient was used in the analysis of data. The null hypothesis was retained although significance was approached. This implies that further research is needed to identify different types and intensities of assertive behavior.

The Relationship Between Assertiveness and Social Anxiety in College Students

The psychological concept of assertiveness provokes a great deal of interest in the social psychological field mainly because of its multidimensional definition that covers the three major tenets of human expression: behavior, cognition, and affect. Behaviorally, assertiveness is exercised when an individual is capable of freely expressing his or her emotions, is able to defend his or her purposes or goals in general and specific situations, and can establish rewarding and fulfilling interpersonal relationships (Colter & Guerra, 1976; Herzberger, Chan, & Katz, 1984). Affectively and cognitively, assertive people are capable of expressing and reacting to positive and negative emotions without undue anxiety or aggression (Gladding, 1988).

Although there are several inventories for the measurement of assertiveness, Herzberger and colleagues (1984) discovered that there was an absence of specificity in the existing assertiveness scales, such as the Rathus Assertiveness Schedule (RAS) or the Conflict Resolution Inventory. This realization prompted the development of the Assertiveness Self-Report Inventory (ASRI), focusing on the measurement of the behavioral and affective components of assertiveness (Herzberger, et al., 1984).

Further development of the theoretical nature of assertiveness was conducted leading many researchers to conclude that any one person’s level of assertiveness could more effectively be placed on a continuum rather than being dichotomously categoriz ed as assertive or non-assertive. Cassell and Blackwell (2002) theorized that there are three main points of classification on the assertiveness continuum. Individuals may be positively assertive, non-assertive, or negatively assertive. A person who is positively assertive will exhibit full and free expression of emotion, will be able to confidently take steps toward specified goals, and will find peace and enjoyment in most processes of daily life (lacking anxiety). A non-assertive person will exhibit decidedly neutral behaviors, have high levels of anxiety associated with concerns about his or her interpersonal interactions, and may not be able to create logical goals for which to strive. Finally, a negatively assertive person will have significant levels of anxiety, may still take confident steps toward goals, but those goals and goal-directed behavior will likely be socially dishonorable.

In recent years, further research and development of assertiveness theory has either focused on assertion training or on how assertiveness is affected by ethnicity or gender (Rodriquez, Johnson, & Combs, 2001). Rodriquez et al. (2001) concluded that assertiveness is strongly affected by age and ethnicity. Using the RAS, they found that undergraduate women in college exhibited lower scores of positive assertiveness than older women and that Hispanic women had lower levels of assertiveness than Caucasian women.

A similar study focused on the impact of ethnicity by having women from different ethnic backgrounds evaluate the assertiveness of individuals in fictitious situations. In evaluation of the results, it was suggested that assertiveness may have culturally relative definitions associated with the values upheld by different societies. For instance, the statement, “Excuse me, I am in a hurry. Put the phone down and help me,” was viewed as assertive by Caucasian and African American women and as aggressive (negatively assertive) by most women in the Hispanic group (Yoshioka, 2000).

When described cognitively, assertiveness is most often defined as exhibiting a lack of anxious thoughts. Kraft, Litwin, & Barber (1986) found that high death anxiety is significantly correlated with low assertion, indicating that highly assertive people possess internal skills to help them deal with tragedies such as death. In another study, students’ levels of assertiveness were compared with whether or not they concurrently exhibited Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after experiencing war-related trauma. This study sought to find whether or not the presence of anxiety affected existing assertiveness ratings in students. Indeed, it was discovered that students possessing high levels of positive assertiveness before the war-related incident expressed lower levels of assertiveness immediately following the stress-related event and later seemed to regain their same or better level of assertiveness two months and then a year after the event (Saigh, 1988).

Social anxiety should have a negative correlation when compared to positive assertiveness. Defined independently, social anxiety should encompass “overly negative interpretation of social feedback, recall of more negative than positive feedback, presence of irrational beliefs, negative self-statements, and excessively high standards of performance” (Hartman, 1984). Revolving around a person’s perception of social events, social anxiety is cognitive and affective and will negatively influence an individual’s behavior.

There are four approaches to understanding social anxiety. The first, the skills-deficit model, explains that social anxiety is the result of an individual lacking the skills to handle situations perceived to be threatening. The second is the cognitive-self model in which social anxiety arises not from a lack of skills but from a perception of personal inadequacy. The third is the classical conditioning model whereby social anxiety is conditioned when a neutral stimulus is associated with negative social experiences. Finally, there is the personality trait model where social anxiousness is a trait rather than a reaction (Schlenker & Leary, 1982; Weber, Wiedig, Freyer & Grahler, 2004).

In the measurement of social anxiety, the Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale (FNE) measures the second of the four approaches to understanding social anxiety. Focusing on cognitive perceptions, the results of the FNE are easily paired with other measures focusing on behavior and affect. However, few studies have actually focused on comparing social anxiety with assertiveness (Weber et al., 2004). Instead, researchers have focused on the implications social anxiety might have in other arenas of life. One such study by Gilbert and Meyer (2005) found that women with eating pathologies had high levels of social anxiety as measured by the FNE. In another study, Watson and Friend (1969) concluded that individuals scoring high on the FNE tended to become more nervous in evaluative situations and would work hard to either avoid disapproval or to gain approval. Similarly, Monfries and Kafer (1993) determined that public self-consciousness often leads to social anxiety.

Studies involving both assertiveness and social anxiety measures are sparse. Those that are available have mostly been used to evaluate applications of what is already assumed to be a negative correlational relationship between assertiveness and social anxiety with other points of behavioral, affective, or cognitive interest. For example, one such study used the FNE and the RAS to evaluate the differing results of skills training or cognitive-behavioral therapy. The researchers found that neither type of behavioral help was more beneficial than the other (Hammen, Jacobs, Mayol, & Cochran, 1980). Other studies have found a negative correlation between dating competence and assertiveness when compared to social anxiety levels and a negative correlation between social anxiety and inferiority when compared to assertiveness. (Lesure-Lester, 2001; Paterson, Green, Basson & Ross, 2002).

A final point of interest focuses on the past popularity of assertiveness training that emerged in the early 1970s. A common aspect of the various proposed methods of assertiveness training was that it focused on elimination of social anxiety. In order to do this, therapists used tactics associated with modeling, shaping, and reinforcing of positively assertive behavior. Most studies conducted in this time period assumed that social anxiety and assertiveness had a negative correlation (Colter & Guerra, 1976; Fensterheim, 1975; Gladding, 1988).

In contrast, perhaps resulting from its popularity in the 1970s or because of the lack of specificity in earlier assertiveness measures, very little research has been conducted on the working psychological definition of assertiveness. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to compare the theoretically defined behavioral and affective characteristics associated with assertiveness (as measured by the ASRI) with the cognitive characteristics associated with dysfunctions of assertiveness as measured by a social anxiety scale, the FNE. It was assumed that there would be a negative correlation between assertiveness and social anxiety when both the FNE and the ASRI were administered to undergraduate students attending a small private school in the Midwest. This contention would support the historically accepted cognitive, behavioral, and affective definition of assertiveness.



Participants included 60 undergraduate college students enrolled at a small private liberal arts school in the Midwest. The convenience sample consisted of students who voluntarily participated in the study. Volunteers were given small incentives (e.g., snacks and soda pop) for attendance and placed in a drawing for a prize. The sample for the present study was 33.3% male and 66.7% female. The mean age was 20.1, the median age was 20, and the range was 17 to 41. There were 24 freshman, 17 sophomores, 7 juniors, and 12 seniors.


The Assertiveness Self-Report Inventory (ASRI) was used to measure the behavioral and affective dimensions of assertiveness (Herzberger, Chan, & Katz, 1984). The ASRI is a scale that consists of 25 true/false questions that is scored by the total of “true” responses for specific questions in comparison to “false” responses for the remaining questions. The ASRI has a reliability of .81 and a validity that is correlated significantly with the Rathus Assertiveness Schedule (Herzberger, et al., 1984).

The Fear of Negative Evaluation (FNE) was used to measure one aspect of social anxiety, the fear of being negatively evaluated by others (Watson & Friend, 1969). The FNE consists of 30 true/false questions and is scored by the number of key items a participant has marked. One point is given if the answer of the participant matches the key. Zero points are given for answers that do not match the key. Scores may range from 0 to 30 with 0 being “no social anxiety” and 30 being the “highest level of social anxiety”. The FNE has a reliability of .72 and validity of .96 (Watson & Friend, 1969).

The present study also contained a few demographic questions that included gender and college class (Freshman through Senior). The demographic questions were on a separate sheet of paper.


Two evening sessions were offered for the administration of the measures and the demographic data. The announcement of the sessions for the study was sent through e-mail and advertised campus wide. Incentives (e.g., snacks and drinks) and a drawing for a grand prize were offered as incentives to encourage attendance.

In both sessions, which occurred in the same classroom, participants were welcomed and given a brief explanation of the study (see Appendix A). They were assured confidentiality and given contact information in case they had any questions or concerns after completing the study. Next, directions for the completion of the survey were then explained to participants. Surveys (with pencils supplied) were then administered to the participants. After completion of the surveys, participants were thanked again for their participation and allowed to leave.


A Pearson r correlation coefficient was used to analyze the data. Using an alpha level of .05 and 58 degrees of freedom the r obtained (-0.23) was compared to the critical r value
(r =.25).

Table 1. Data Distribution

Because the r obtained was less than the critical r, the null hypothesis was retained even though the significance was approached (p=.08). No significant relationship between assertiveness (ASRI) and social anxiety (FNE) was found. The means of the scales were similar to the means obtained in the current study. The means in the original study for the ASRI ranged from 9.54 to 10.71 for both males and females (Herzberger, et al., 1984). The current study’s obtained mean of Assertiveness (ASRI) scores was 11.58 and (SD=4.85). The original study’s means for the FNE ranged from 13.97 to 16.1 (Watson & Friend, 1969). The obtained means of Social Anxiety (FNE) scores was 17.18 and (SD =7.44). A comparative analysis could not be performed because the original data was unavailable.


The results of the present study did not support a negative correlation between assertiveness and social anxiety as measured by the ASRI and the FNE. The strength of the relationship was not as strong as we expected but our critical r value did approach significance. The majority of the participants obtained moderate scores on both assertiveness and social anxiety.

The correlation was not significant but the present study suggests that a range of assertiveness may need to be considered in the measurement of assertiveness. Research by Cassel and Blackwell (2002) found that assertiveness can be measured on a continuum including positive and negative levels. Negative assertiveness would be evident in a person who exhibits high levels of anxiety as well as goal-oriented behaviors (otherwise known as an aggressive person). The ASRI used in the current study was developed in 1984. Therefore a continuum of assertiveness was not likely taken into consideration in the development of this measure.

A practical application of the current research is that participants who rated high in social anxiety could receive teaching, therapy, or other treatment to lessen fear and increase assertiveness skills. Assertiveness training that emerged in the early 1970s focused on the elimination of social anxiety and the modeling, shaping, and reinforcing of positively assertive behavior. It is likely that similar training could be useful today.

There is no evidence for the effect of gender on both assertiveness and social anxiety. The campus from which the sample was obtained is composed of about 60% females and 40% males. The sample for the present study was 33.3% male and 66.7% female. Therefore, it is uncertain whether the elevated levels of female participants had an effect on our study.

There were a few limitations in the present study. One participant marked two of the questions ‘not applicable’ on the ASRI instead of choosing a True or False answer. In the analysis of the data, the answers were counted as “False” because the participant never displayed assertiveness in that type of situation. Another participant did not answer a question on the ASRI and the response was counted as false. Two of our participants who rated the highest on the ASRI and lowest on the FNE were the youngest and oldest participants. We were not sure the reason for the youngest participant to have one of the highest assertiveness scores and the lowest social anxiety scores. However, we have reasoned that the oldest participant scored high in both assertiveness and social anxiety due to more life experience than the other participants.

Considerations for future research would be to add the age of participants as a variable because maturity may have an effect on levels of assertiveness and social anxiety. Future studies could examine the levels of assertiveness and social anxiety for young individuals (i.e., adolescents) compared to older individuals (i.e., adults). Because the sample of the current study was mostly female, gender could also be another variable to consider by comparing levels of assertiveness and social anxiety between males and females.


Cassel, R. N., & Blackwell, J. (2002). Positive assertiveness begins with character education and includes the abuse of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Journal of Instructional Psychology , 29(2), 77-79.

Colter, S. B., & Guerra, J. J. (1976). Assertion training: A humanistic-behavioral guide to self-dignity. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Fensterheim, H. (1975). Don’t say yes when you want to say no: How assertiveness training can change your life. New York City, NY: David McKay Company.

Gilbert, N., & Meyer, C. (2005). Fear of negative evaluation and the development of eating psychopathology: A longitudinal study among nonclinical women. Journal of Eating Disorders, 37 (4), 307-312.

Gladding, S. T. (1988). Counseling: A comprehensive profession. Princeton, NC: Merrill Publishing Company.

Hammen, C. L., Jacobs, M., Mayol, A., & Cochran, S. D. (1980). Dysfunctional cognitions and the effectiveness of skills and cognitive—behavioral assertion training. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 48, 685-695.

Hartman, L. M. (1984). Cognitive components of social anxiety. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 40 (1), 137-139.

Herzberger, S. D., Chan, E., & Katz, J. (1984). The development of an assertiveness self-report inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 48(3), 317-323.

Kraft, W. A., Litwin, W. J., & Barber, S. E. (1986). Religious orientation and assertiveness: Relationship to death anxiety. The Journal of Social Psychology, 127 , 93-95.

Lesure-Lester, G. E. (2001). Dating competence, social assertion and social anxiety among college students. College Student Journal, 35(2), 317-320.

Monfries, M. M., & Kafer, N. F. (1993). Private self-consciousness and fear of negative evaluation. The Journal of Psychology, 128, 447-454.

Paterson, M., Green, J. M., Basson, C. J., & Ross, F. (2002). Probability of assertive behavior, interpersonal anxiety and self-efficacy of South African registered dietitians. Journal of Human Nutrition & Dietetics, 15, 9-17.

Rodriquez, G., Johnson, S. W., & Combs, D. C. (2001). Significant variables associated with assertiveness among Hispanic college women. Journal of Instructional Psychology , 28(3), 184-190.

Saigh, P. A. (1988). Anxiety, depression, and assertion across alternating intervals of stress. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97(3), 338-341.

Schlenker, B. R., & Leary, M. R. (1982). Social anxiety and self-presentation: A conceptualization and model. Psychological Bulletin, 92(3), 641-669.

Watson, D. & Friend, R. (1969). Measurement of social-evaluative anxiety. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 33 (4), 448-457.

Weber, H., Wiedig, M., Freyer, J., & Grahler, J. (2004). Social anxiety and anger regulation. European Journal of Psychology, 18, 573-590.

Yoshioka, M. (2000). Substantive differences in the assertiveness of low-income African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian women. The Journal of Psychology, 134(3), 243-259.

Appendix A

Survey Instructions

The following is to be read to the participants prior to beginning the survey:

“Welcome. Please take a seat and feel free to grab some snacks or drinks. In a few minutes we will begin.” Participants come in classroom, socialize, and eat snacks.

“Thanks for attending; we are conducting a study on the psychological dimensions of social concern and relationships. This short survey is made up of True and False questions. Read each item and answer based on your viewpoint or agreement to the questions. All surveys are kept confidential. If you have any concerns or questions about our survey, please contact us. If you are interested in the results of our study, you may contact us after May 1 st and we will be willing to inform you. If something comes up during the survey and you are required to leave, do so but we would hope that everyone would be able to complete this short survey. We will now give you the surveys and pencils. As soon as you are finished, hand the papers to us, leave the pencils in the box, and feel free to leave. Thanks again for attending. Your input is deeply appreciated.”


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