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Communication Apprehension

Summary and Keywords

Communication scholarship has profited greatly by the rise of social science during the mid-20th century. This scientific progress has been marked by increased outlets for peer-reviewed research, thriving sub-disciplines, and a rapidly accumulating corpus of findings. Social scientists have accomplished this feat largely by conducting tests of empirical models and their associated constructs. Over the same span of time, the discipline’s most prolific researcher, James C. McCroskey, pioneered the study of the construct with which he is most closely associated. Communication apprehension (CA) has impelled generations of scholars to investigate possibly the greatest impediment to successful communication, namely the fear of interacting with fellow humans. Tracing its development reveals that CA meets the standards for theory bridges: truth, abstraction, progress, and applicability. Consequently, describing CA as a bridge construct rests on four interrelated claims. First, the primary aim of CA research is to discover the truth about social anxiety. Studies of CA have outstripped competitor explanations for speaker anxiety by yielding an extensive literature of peer-reviewed articles, books, and doctoral dissertations. These writings are predicated on the presumption that CA taps into the true nature of social anxiety. Second, self-reported measures of CA, such as the PRCA-24, allow for enough abstraction to support scientific generalization. This makes it possible for CA researchers to connect concrete observations to abstract principles. Third, CA research contributes to scientific progress in communication. Explanations for CA have generally reflected theories and perspectives at the horizon of the field. Last, CA research impacts on the quality of everyday life. Ultimately, CA researchers seek to develop treatment and educational strategies for the one-fifth of the general population afflicted with this condition. Taken together, CA has served as a bridge construct that enables scholars to pursue truth, formulate testable generalizations, achieve scientific progress, and potentially improve the quality of human life.

Keywords: communication apprehension, James C. McCroskey, theories as bridges, communication as a social science, theory building, speech fright, social anxiety

Communication Apprehension as a Bridge Construct

Philosophers of science and communication scholars alike have proposed competing metaphors for the informed hunches they call theories (Bormann, 1989; Griffin, Ledbetter, & Sparks, 2015). Among the more popular entries in this contest are: theories are nets cast to capture knowledge (Popper, 1959); theories are lenses through which one gains new insights (Kuhn, 1970; Littlejohn & Foss, 2008); and theories are maps that lead to new discoveries (Barge, 2001). These imaginative descriptions reveal the fundamental belief that scholars have about theories, namely, that the center holding together the entire academic enterprise rests on the ability to rigorously explain subject matter. In this way, Kruglanski’s (2006) idea that theories are bridges outstrips many of its competitor metaphors by showing how theories contribute to and maintain academic disciplines. Accordingly, theories act as bridges when they provide scholars with avenues to pursue truth, connect concrete observations with abstract principles, advance scientific explanation, and are applicable to everyday life (Van Lange, 2013). Although broader theoretical constructions usually make better bridges than narrower ones, scholars in some academic fields prefer smaller-scale explanations to grand theories of everything.1 Within communication, preferences for narrow and even ad hoc theories often make the work of bridging more difficult. Robust constructs can help to shoulder this burden, provided they meet the standards of social science. Under these conditions, constructs can also serve as bridges.

Defined as the fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons, communication apprehension (CA) provides a prime example of how constructs can act as bridges. Since the term first appeared in the academic writings of James C. McCroskey (1977), CA has been among the most studied constructs in the field of communication. Tracing its development during the preceding half century reveals the contours of CA as a bridge construct. Specifically, as a construct, CA has enabled communication scholars to meet the standards of social science, namely, truth, abstraction, progress, and applicability.

Discovering Truths About Communication

According to the bridge perspective, the preeminent standard against which any scientific account should be evaluated is truth. Essentially, this means that constructs, like other forms of explanation, should be amenable to empirical testing (Popper, 1959). Moreover, the value of the empirical findings that scholars report will be determined by communities of scholars themselves (Greenwald, 2004). Often this means that a particular construct is deemed superior to its competitors because it outperforms them in critical experiments (Bouchard, 2009) or by the sheer volume of published studies in which the construct appears, also known as research impact (Harnad, 2003; Levine, 2010). Thus, the central question here is not whether researchers can attain absolute truths but rather whether there is enough evidence to convince scholars that a construct captures something valid about the phenomena it purports to operationalize.

Evidence for the scientific truth standard is apparent in early CA research. That is, prior to studies of CA, many communication researchers investigated the phenomenon of stage fright but achieved only limited success. The communication discipline of the mid-20th century was comprised of scholars who studied an array of topics, yet the introductory undergraduate course to the field was primarily dedicated to giving public speeches. Consequently, Gilkinson’s (1942, 1943) reports of social anxiety within college student populations were followed, a decade later, by attempts at measuring speaker anxiety in public speaking courses. For example, Dickens, Gibson, and Prall (1950) defined speaker anxiety in terms of overt behavior that could be observed by audiences. Likewise, Dickens and Parker (1951) compared physiological, speaker-reported and audience-observed stage fright but found weak correlations among these measurement strategies. This would lead Clevenger (1959) to conclude that, “Although they may be associated in some way, the hypothesis is advanced that audience-perceived stage fright, cognitively experienced stage fright, and physiological disruption are three variables which operate with only moderate interdependence during the course of a public speech” (p. 138). Consequently, social science studies of stage fright conducted by communication scholars during the mid-20th century failed to provide an understanding of speaker anxiety sufficient to support programmatic research.

By the late 1960s, the Speech Association of America (the forerunner of the National Communication Association) formed its Ad Hoc Committee on Evaluation, which subsequently issued the following call in the December, 1969 issue of Spectra:

Since many problems in speech communication pedagogy may result from students’ inhibition rather than their inability, we recommend the development of instruments to measure at various ages the extent of communication-bound anxiety (pp. 3–4).

Shortly thereafter, McCroskey (1970) published four versions of his Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA), of which three were designed to measure CA among differing age groups of speakers (i.e., seventh graders, tenth graders, and college students), and one was intended for adults participating in general public speaking situations.

Currently, numerous versions of the PRCA have appeared in research literature of the field, including those for interactions with different ethnic groups and cultures (PRECA: Bippus & Dorjee, 2002), public speaking (PRPSA: Richmond & McCroskey, 1985), writing (WAT: Daly & Miller, 1975), anxiety between dating partners (DPCA: Powers & Love, 2000), children and parents (CPCA: Lucchetti, Powers, & Love, 2002), and students and teachers (SICA: Jordan & Powers, 2007). In this way, the construct of CA taps into the experience of social anxiety using a research strategy known as narrowbanding (Behnke & Sawyer, 1998)—that is, the operationalizing of constructs for specific communication situations or types of individuals to create a lens through which a richer understanding of the phenomenon can be obtained.

This approach was validated because CA outstripped the research impact of competitor constructs. Evidence for the preeminence of CA abounds in the scholarly writings. When entered as a search term into the databases PsycINFO and Communication Source, “communication apprehension” returns nearly 1,200 unique entries, of which more than 900 are articles appearing in peer-reviewed academic journals, along with 32 book titles, and in excess of 100 doctoral dissertations. Interest in communication-bound anxiety by social scientists spans more than five decades and has intrigued researchers from a host of fields outside communication and many sub-disciplines within. Consequently, based on the numerous narrowband versions of the PRCA and the accumulation of scholarly research in the area, CA as a construct has been embraced by scholarly communities as capturing some degree of truth concerning communication.

Constructing Scientific Generalizations

Robust constructs, such as CA, enable scholars to address a second ideal of science, namely, abstraction. According to the bridge perspective, science is essentially about replacing the specific with the abstract (Kruglanski, 2006; Van Lange, 2013). Although a program of empirical research might yield many interesting findings, these should be replaced by valid generalizations concerning the phenomena they investigate. Moreover, abstraction promotes elegant explanations (Forster & Sober, 1994) that, in turn, help scholars to formulate testable hypotheses. Abstraction thus furthers the goals of science by increasing the efficiency with which researchers uncover the underlying principles that govern the findings reported in previous studies (Kelly, 2004). The central question here concerns whether a construct allows for enough abstraction to support scientific generalizations.

Among the influences that contributed to the development of CA as a construct were the Yale Study and Cattell’s factor analytic studies of personality. Hovland, Janis, and Kelley’s (1953) Communication and Persuasion (later known as the Yale Study) not only demonstrated the usefulness of social psychological approaches to human communication (Goyer, 1959) but also was the first modern examination of fear as a communication variable (Miller, 1963). Around the same time that the Yale Study was underway, Raymond B. Cattell left his teaching post at Harvard University to serve as founding director of the Laboratory of Personality Assessment and Group Behavior at the University of Illinois. Chief among Cattell’s inducements for leaving Harvard was that his new appointment afforded him extensive research support, including access to Illiac, the first mainframe computer dedicated to education. Cattell’s mathematical approach to personality, and his use of factor analysis in particular, eventually expanded to include studies of anxiety (Cattell & Scheier, 1958, 1961). Cattell is also credited with laying the conceptual foundation for the state–trait dimension of anxiety (Cattell, 1966; Spielberger, 1966). On the one hand, the term “trait” indicates that members of a group can be ranked according to some characteristics they share and that these rankings will remain intact over time. Traits measure differences among individuals that are stable. States, on the other hand, represent how each person experiences these characteristics in particular situations. States are correlated with traits but subject to moment-by-moment fluctuations. From this perspective, CA is both a predisposition toward social anxiety or trait and the actual state of anxiety one experiences during communication situations, such as giving a speech, being interviewed, having a conversation, or participating in group discussions.2

These developments contributed to the construct of CA as it was formulated in the 1970s That is, McCroskey undertook the study of communication-bound anxiety, as had the Yale Study 20 years earlier. Further, the development of the PRCA as an instrument followed the familiar pattern established by Cattell (1966), namely, the factor analysis of self-reported trait anxiety. A cursory examination of publications in communication journals from the mid-1960s onward shows that McCroskey published upwards of 50 papers using or discussing factor analysis and even wrote about the uses and abuses of factor analytic studies in communication (McCroskey & Young, 1979). More specifically, the PRCA was so well constructed that its factor structure was confirmed when highly stringent tests were applied (Levine & McCroskey, 1990). McCroskey (2009) would later acknowledge that CA was rooted in the trait approach pioneered by Cattell. That is, CA was initially conceived as a stable characteristic that could be measured reliably by using questionnaires and accounted for meaningful differences among individuals. Additionally, numerous researchers undertook the study of state CA, including those who used psychophysiological (Greene & Sparks, 1983; Pörhölä, Isotalus, & Ovaskainen, 1993; Sawyer & Behnke, 2014), neurochemical (Roberts, Sawyer, & Behnke, 2004), and behavioral observation (Finn, Sawyer, & Behnke, 2003) methodologies. These conceptual and methodological breakthroughs contributed greatly to the use of CA by communication scholars in many empirical studies over a span of 50 years.

Promoting Scientific Progress

Ostensibly, progress in the social sciences should be marked by the expansion of knowledge beyond what was previously known. Communities of scholars, therefore, work assiduously to replace the inaccuracies and false conclusions of previous research with newer and more accurate information. This often occurs when the conventional explanations for phenomena are superseded by those with greater explanatory and predictive power. Since entering the communication lexicon, CA has continued to reflect the perspectives of contemporary scholarship, thereby contributing to the scientific progress of communication. In many ways, the various explanations for CA that have been offered over the years also reflect the scientific progress of the field itself.

Initially, Bandura’s (1977, 1986) social learning theory was thought to provide a comprehensive explanation for CA and its affects. In his early writings on the subject, McCroskey (1977, 1983) believed that CA was a function of two interrelated factors, namely, modeling and punishment. That is, CA develops in children who model their communication behavior on poor exemplars, such as adults with poor communication skills or language competence. It was further believed that when children from these households entered school, they would be humiliated by their fellow classmates and embarrassed by the public corrections of their teachers. This would, in turn, cause them to avoid communication and as a result their communication skills would never improve. If not corrected during the formative years, the tendency to fear communication will persist into adult life.

Later, a related explanation for CA based on Chesebro et al. (1992) and known as skills deficit theory was promoted by Bippus and Daly (1999) as an alternative to social learning theory. According to this perspective, children learn to fear communication when they believe that their speaking skills are inadequate. Similar to the social learning explanation, children who avoid speaking at school are rarely called upon to answer questions in class, thereby impeding the development of their communication skills. Hsu (1998) reported that some family communication patterns may contribute to skills deficits as well. Specifically, families that discourage children from expressing themselves can also impede the development of speaking competences. The resulting skills deficits mean that, as adults, they will continue to avoid communication and will experience intense CA when forced to do so.

By the last decade of the 20th century, however, scholars from a variety of disciplines began to explore biological and genetic explanations for human behavior. In his Carroll C. Arnold lecture entitled, Why We Communicate the Ways We Do: A Communibiological Perspective, McCroskey (1997) proposed the following five central propositions:

  • Proposition 1: all psychological processes involved in social interaction depend on brain activity, making necessary a neurobiology of communication.

  • Proposition 2: brain activity precedes psychological experience.

  • Proposition 3: the neurobiological structures underlying temperament traits and individual differences are mostly inherited.

  • Proposition 4: environment or “situation” has only a negligible effect on interpersonal behavior.

  • Proposition 5: differences in interpersonal behavior are principally due to individual differences in neurobiological functioning.

Early the next year, Beatty, McCroskey, and Heisel (1998) reinterpreted CA within this new paradigm. Their paper challenged the social learning and skills deficits explanations. Additional support for the communibiological perspective has continued to appear in communication journals over the years, thus contributing to the scientific progress of the discipline.

Impacting Everyday Life

According to the bridge perspective, the fourth and last ideal of science is its applicability to everyday experience. That is, given the extent to which constructs tap into truth, these constructs allow scholars to look beneath surface level phenomena, and yield new knowledge; they should also contribute to the improvement of everyday life. With deference to Kurt Lewin (1951), one may argue that only a few things are as practical as a good construct. Communication apprehension is a construct that impacts the lives of people.

Approximately 20% of the U.S. general population has high levels of CA (McCroskey, 1972; Sawyer & Richmond, 2015). Furthermore, estimates of elevated CA among college students range from 24.4% to 9.1% (Bruneau, Cambra, & Klopf, 1980)—these figures are generally consistent with the prevalence of emotional disorders reported among modern industrialized countries (Davidson, 2006). According to Dwyer and Davidson (2012), more than 60% of adults in the United States rank public speaking as their most dreaded situation in life. Numerous communication scholars have shown that CA negatively effects communication competence (Sawyer & Richmond, 2015), including public speaking skills (Finn, Sawyer, & Behnke, 2003; Sawyer, 2016). Furthermore, high levels of CA are associated with poor academic performance (McCroskey, 1977), lowered self-esteem (McCroskey, Daly, Richmond, & Falcione, 1977), and reduced self-disclosure (McCroskey & Richmond, 1977). As a result, CA predicts diminished prospects for success and life satisfaction.

Notably, the scholarly record in communication also gives evidence of extensive programs of research aimed at treating communication-bound anxiety with techniques such as systematic desensitization (SD). Both Wolpe (1958) and Paul (1966) had identified the advantages of SD over other methods of anxiety reduction. McCroskey (1972) would later adopt these same arguments when proposing SD as a tool for reducing the anxiety of basic course speakers. Embracing social learning theory led many communication researchers, including McCroskey, to conclude that CA could be treated using counter-conditioning strategies such as SD. However, since the 1970s several more anxiety reduction strategies have been used to help students enrolled in communication courses to manage CA more effectively. These include cognitive restructuring (Fremouw & Scott, 1979; Gross & Fremouw, 1982) or COM therapy (Motley, 2009), rhetoritherapy for reticent speakers (Kelly & Keaton, 2009), and visualization therapy (Ayres, Hopf, Hazel, Sonandre, & Wongprasert, 2009).

Many of these efforts have been reviewed in meta-analyses over the years (Allen & Bourhis, 1996; Allen, Hunter, & Donohue, 1989; Lustig & Anderson, 1990; Bourhis, Allen, & Bauman, 2006; Hopf & Ayres, 1992; Patterson & Ritts, 1997). Recently, Hsu (2009) examined the aforementioned anxiety reduction methods and concluded that several of them yield effect sizes ranging from medium to large. However, the efficacy of CA reduction strategies has been challenged on both theoretical and methodological grounds. In the former case, Beatty, McCroskey and Heisel (1998) have argued that the degree to which CA can be modified would be limited by biological factors, including heritability and temperament. In the latter, Duff, Levine, Beatty, Woolbright, and Park (2007) have argued that previous studies of anxiety reduction in communication did not control for threats to validity. For example, many studies may have been subject to confirmation bias simply because researchers failed to use credible placebo conditions (Duff et al., 2007). However, newer methods of anxiety reduction, such as exposure therapy, have shown promise in clinical studies (Foa, Huppert, & Cahill, 2006). Unlike other methods of reducing CA, exposure therapies can be delivered through virtual reality (Owens & Beidel, 2015) or in traditional face-to-face instruction (Finn, Sawyer, & Schrodt, 2009) and can be integrated into normal classroom activities.

Past Research as Prologue

Since its inception, CA as a construct has imbued communication scholars with both a sense of continuity and connection with diverse communities of likeminded researchers. These, in turn, continue to create opportunities for ongoing collaboration. It has served as a bridge allowing generations of researchers to seek the truth concerning the reasons why humans become anxious before, during, and after social interactions. Penetrating beneath the surface phenomena, such as being nervous before giving a speech, CA scholars have been able to construct deeper explanations that lead to testable hypotheses. Among the many contributions of its originator and leading proponent, James C. McCroskey, the construct of CA has served as a model for generations of empirical researchers. In turn, this has contributed greatly to scientific progress in the study of communication. Finally, the applicability of CA to everyday life is seen in that it seeks to operationalize perhaps the most common and discomforting of human responses, namely, the fear of interacting with fellow members of the species.

Further Reading

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        Hsu, C. F. (2007). A cross-cultural comparison of communication orientations between Americans and Taiwanese. Communication Quarterly, 55, 359–374.Find this resource:

          McCroskey, J. C. (1977). Oral communication apprehension: A summary of recent theory and research. Human Communication Research, 4, 78–96.Find this resource:

            McCroskey, J. C. (2009). Communication apprehension: What have we learned in the last four decades. Human Communication, 12, 157–171.Find this resource:

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                  Sawyer, C. R. (2016). Communication apprehension and public speaking instruction. In P. W. Witt (Ed.), Handbooks of communication science: Vol. 16. Communication and learning (pp. 397–425). Berlin, Germany: DeGruyter Mouton.Find this resource:


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                                                                                                                                                                                    (1.) This strategy is common in the field of communication and has contributed to its success in recent decades.

                                                                                                                                                                                    (2.) Cattell and his fellow collaborators developed an extensive and complex system of personality factors, including a category called dynamic traits. Although largely abandoned by succeeding generations of researchers, dynamic traits were said to be relatively stable and linked to motivational states. Both Spielberger (1966) and McCroskey (1977) preferred to focus on traits and states to the exclusion of dynamic traits. Later, Behnke and Sawyer (1998) used this same term to describe traits that were correlated with speaker state anxiety at particular moments before, during, and after giving public speeches.