Socially anxious people learn more from negative social feedback, study finds

Social learning biases appear to play a role in anxiety. New research has found evidence that people with social anxiety disorder show a negativity bias when learning from feedback.

The study, which was published in the scientific journal Emotion, found that people without social anxiety disorder showed the opposite bias.

“Broadly speaking, my research addresses how emotion and behavior are influenced by social context, and so far, we know very little about the psychological and brain mechanisms that underlie social context effects on the self,” explained study author Leonie Koban of the University of Colorado Boulder.

“How we perceive our self and how we feel about our self is central to human experience. Self-perception and -esteem are also importantly altered (e.g., much more negative self-image) in many psychopathologies, including social anxiety disorder.”

“So it is really important to understand how self-perception and feelings about the self (i.e., state self-esteem) are fluctuating over time and how those dynamics differ between people,” Koban told PsyPost. “We looked at this from a learning perspective, by testing the idea that self-perception and feelings are influenced by social learning.”

In the study of 21 adults with social anxiety disorder and 35 controls, the participants gave a 5-minute speech about their perfect job before a panel of judges.

The participants rated their own performance after giving the speech. Then they viewed ratings from the judges and rated how they felt about themselves and about the judges. About 20 minutes later, the participants were asked to rate their performance again.

They were asked to rate their performance yet again 7 to 17 months later.

The researchers found that the adults with social anxiety disorder updated their self-perception to a greater extent in response to negative than to positive performance feedback.

The participants without social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, showed the opposite bias. For them, the positive feedback left more of a mark.

“Simply put, our self is changing over time and those changes are influenced by social context, such as when we get positive or negative feedback from others. Interestingly, not all people learn about the self in the same way,” Koban explained to PsyPost.

“While most non-anxious people have a positivity bias in updating their self-image and self-esteem (e.g. they update more based on positive social feedback), socially anxious people do not have this positivity bias–instead they may even learn more from negative social information. This could potentially explain their overall negative self-views and feelings.”

Countering negatively biased learning could be useful in treating social anxiety, but more research is need.

“More studies will be needed to answer the question whether our findings regarding altered learning about the self are specific for social anxiety disorder or whether we would find similar effects in other anxiety disorders or in internalizing disorders more broadly,” Koban said.

“Further, due to difficulties recruiting male participants with SAD and who were eligible for our study, we have to test in the future (in a larger group of patients) whether there are any sex differences between male and female socially anxious people.”

The study, “Social anxiety is characterized by biased learning about performance and the self“, was also co-authored by Rebecca Schneider, Yoni K. Ashar, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Lauren Landy, David A. Moscovitch, Tor D. Wager, and Joanna J. Arch.