In seeking to understand the consequences of distorted thinking on social anxiety symptoms, researchers have found that those who experience positive interpretation biases experience improvement in their social anxiety symptoms after a 4-week period. This research offers insights into the types of therapeutic interventions that can reduce social anxiety symptoms.
Based on the study’s findings, which appear in the journal Behavior Therapy, clinicians may want to include steps to increase positive experience interpretation biases when treating their patients with social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is characterized by a fear of negative evaluation, leading to intense fear and anxiety during or avoidance of social situations. Research suggests that interpretation biases, especially negative ones, contribute to the development of SAD. Those with a negative interpretation bias tend to interpret ambiguous social information as negative. For those with SAD, this increases the feelings of threat around social interactions.
Prior research has found that interpretation inflexibility, or difficulty in revising interpretations, may exacerbate negative biases’ impact and increase social anxiety over time.
Additionally, working memory capacity plays a crucial role in managing interpretations of ambiguous situations. Individuals with greater WMC may be better able to incorporate non-threatening social cues into their assessment of social situations, weakening the strength of negatively biased interpretations.
For their new study, Christian Bean and colleagues recruited 111 undergraduate students between 18 and 33. The study intended to investigate whether interpretation biases and interpretation inflexibility can predict change in social anxiety over time. The study used the Emotional Bias Against Disconfirming Evidence (BADE) task to measure interpretation bias and inflexibility.
The task presented participants with social scenarios that were ambiguous in terms of whether they may be positive or negative for the participant and asked them to rate the likelihood of various outcomes. Participants would then update their ratings as additional information was revealed that supported either negative or positive interpretations. They also completed measures of SAD and working memory capacity.
Bean and colleagues hypothesized that greater negative and lower positive interpretation biases would each predict increased social anxiety six months after the initial assessments. The researchers also hypothesized that greater interpretation inflexibility would predict increased social anxiety. Finally, the study explored whether differences in working memory capacity affected SAD outcomes.
The data analysis revealed greater positive interpretation bias predicted lower social anxiety at the two-week and four-week follow-up. Interestingly, neither negative interpretation bias nor interpretation inflexibility was related to change in social anxiety over time. Those results were consistent regardless of the severity of social anxiety and differences in working memory capacity.
The research team acknowledged that the length of their study limits the conclusions that can be made. Different results may be found if these variables were examined again after a more extended period.
Bean and colleagues provided evidence that positive interpretation bias predicts fewer social anxiety symptoms over time. However, neither negative interpretation bias nor interpretation inflexibility was related to a change in social anxiety. These results suggest that an ability to produce and apply positive interpretations may be more beneficial than simply an absence of negative interpretations.
The research team concludes, “interventions to increase client resilience to information they perceive to be disconfirming after they draw initial positive interpretations may be warranted rather than striving for accurate assessments of ambiguous social situations. Clinicians may thus find it beneficial to focus on developing and enhancing endorsement of positive interpretations and alternatives to potentially negative interpretations in the treatment of social anxiety.”
The study, “Positive interpretation bias predicts longitudinal decreases in social anxiety“, was authored by Christian A.L. Bean, Jonas Everaert, and Jeffrey A. Ciesla.