The positivity of memories tends to degrade over time in people with social anxiety

New research indicates that social anxiety disorder is tied to memory processes. Previous research has found that the negativity of memories tends to fade over time. But the new study, which appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, suggests the opposite is true among those with social anxiety.

“I became interested in memory processes in social anxiety disorder through my clinical experience in neuropsychology where memory is often a focus of testing,” said study author Brianne Glazier, a PhD candidate at The University of British Columbia.

The researchers recruited 59 individuals with social anxiety disorder and 63 non-anxious participants, who were used as a control group. The participants were asked to give an impromptu 3-minute speech on any topic of their choice and were informed that an independent judge was rating the quality of their speech.

Rather than being judged on their actual performance, however, the participants were randomly assigned to receive either mostly positive or mostly neutral feedback on 14 different aspects of their speech.

Five minutes after viewing the feedback, the participants were asked to mark their recollections of the feedback on the same 14-item scale. One week later, the participants were once again asked to mark their recollections of the original feedback.

Glazier and her colleagues found that fewer feedback items were correctly recalled after one week among both groups. However, the socially anxious participants tended to recall positive feedback as less positive than it had been — a tendency that was not observed in the control group.

“The most important thing to take away from this study is that for those with high levels of social anxiety, the positivity in their memories tends to erode over time, making it harder for them to remember positive experiences and perpetuating their fear of social situations. For those who do have high social anxiety, they should make an effort to focus on and remember the positive aspects of their social experiences,” Glazier told PsyPost.

“The caveats of this study are that it was conducted in a laboratory, not with participants’ daily social experiences. Also, we only examined memory at one time point so we cannot make any conclusions about whether the memory change is progressive. Questions still to be addressed are what mechanisms explain the memory change and how to use these findings to help individuals with social anxiety disorder.”

“For people struggling with social anxiety, there are well-validated psychotherapy techniques that can be very helpful as well as many things that people can on their own their own to start to overcome their fear,” Glazier added.

“For example, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) offers a fact sheet with information about social anxiety, its causes, and therapy options and the Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) provides information about social anxiety and suggested strategies on how to manage it, including a workbook “Shy No Longer” that individuals can work through at their own pace.”

The study, “Social anxiety disorder and memory for positive feedback“, was authored by Brianne L. Glazier and Lynn E. Alden.