A new study found that adolescents who were asked to focus their attention inward and monitor their performance during a conversation task experienced more anxiety, appeared more anxious, and performed worse as conversation partners than those who were instructed to focus their attention on their partners. The findings, published in PLOS One, suggest that self-focused attention and safety behaviors are key psychological mechanisms that should be addressed during early treatment for social anxiety.
People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) are intensely afraid of social situations and preoccupied with worry about what others think about them. These debilitating fears are thought to emerge in adolescence and can persist into adulthood if left unaddressed. Researchers Eleanor Leigh and her team hoped to shed light on key features of SAD that can be addressed during early intervention. Since previous studies have pinpointed the roles of self-focused attention and safety behaviors in the maintenance of social anxiety among adults, the researchers sought to explore these features among an adolescent sample.
Leigh and her colleagues recruited a sample of students with either low or high social anxiety. The students, between the ages of 11 and 14, were each instructed to engage in two 5-minute conversations with a stranger while an experimenter observed discretely. The conversation partners were psychology students who were blind to the motives of the study.
Importantly, the students were assigned to one of two conditions. In one condition, participants were asked to focus on their conversation partner without thinking about how they are coming across. In the safety behaviors and self-focused condition, the students were instructed to turn their attention inward during the conversation and to monitor their performance regularly to check whether they are saying “the right thing.” This performance monitoring was an example of a safety behavior — coping behavior that is used when attempting to avoid a feared outcome.
Following each conversation, the participants rated how anxious they felt and how well they thought they had performed during the conversation. The conversation partners rated how likable the participant was, how anxious they seemed, and how enjoyable they found their conversation. Additionally, independent raters scored the quality of the conversations according to features like flow and reciprocity.
It was found that, compared to the students who focused on their partners, those who used safety behaviors and self-focus during the interaction felt more anxious, believed they came across as more anxious, and rated their performances more harshly. They were also more likely to feel that their fears about the interaction had been realized. Moreover, their conversation partners rated them as less likable and their demeanors as more anxious, and the independent raters gave their conversations more critical ratings.
The researchers underscore that these participants who focused inward and used safety behaviors had their negative self-beliefs confirmed when both their conversation partners and the independent raters scored them harshly. This highlights the fact that these strategies are unhelpful and appear to perpetuate the very outcomes individuals with SAD are trying to avoid.
“This is consistent with cognitive models of social anxiety in adults that suggest specific psychological processes (social cognitions, negative imagery, self-focused attention, and safety behaviours) create interlocking reciprocal links that lock individuals into a cycle of social anxiety,” the study authors write.
Leigh and her colleagues express the need to explore what makes people more or less likely to rely on these maladaptive strategies. Longitudinal studies could test the possibility that these processes are triggered by the negative social schema associated with SAD. They also note that interventions among adults with SAD have used experiments like theirs to demonstrate to patients the repercussions of safety behaviors and self-focus. The researchers suggest that this approach should also be integrated into treatment for youth.
The study, “Self-focused attention and safety behaviours maintain social anxiety in adolescents: An experimental study”, was authored by Eleanor Leigh, Kenny Chiu, and David M. Clark.