Focusing on yourself and using safety behaviors during conversation unintentionally perpetuates social anxiety
New study found that teens who were asked to focus their attention and monitor their performance during a conversation task experienced more anxiety, appeared more anxious, and performed worse as conversation partners than those who had been asked to focus their attention on their partners. The conclusions, published in PLOS A, suggest that self-centered attention and safety behaviors are key psychological mechanisms that should be addressed when treating social anxiety early.
People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) have an intense fear of social situations and worry about what others think about them. These debilitating fears are thought to appear in adolescence and can persist into adulthood if left untreated. Researchers Eleanor Leigh and her team hoped to shed light on the main features of SAD that can be treated with early intervention. Since previous studies have highlighted the roles of self-centered attention and safety behaviors in maintaining social anxiety in adults, the researchers sought to explore these characteristics in a sample of ‘adolescents.
Leigh and his colleagues recruited a sample of students with low or high social anxiety. The students, aged 11 to 14, were each invited to engage in two 5-minute conversations with a stranger while an experimenter observed them discreetly. The interlocutors were psychology students who did not know the motivations of the study.
It is important to note that the students were assigned one of two conditions. In one condition, participants were asked to focus on their interlocutor without thinking about how they present themselves. In the Safety Behaviors and Self-Concentration Condition, students were instructed to turn their attention inward during conversation and regularly monitor their performance to see if they were saying “the right thing.” This performance monitoring was an example of a safety behavior – an adaptive behavior that is used in an attempt to avoid a dreaded outcome.
After each conversation, participants rated how anxious they felt and how well they felt they were successful during the conversation. Interlocutors rated how likeable the participant was, how anxious they seemed, and how enjoyable they found their conversation. Additionally, independent reviewers rated the quality of conversations based on characteristics such as flow and reciprocity.
It was found that, compared to students who focused on their partners, those who used safety behaviors and self-focus during the interaction felt more anxious, felt they were more anxious and rated their performance. more severely. They were also more likely to think their fears about the interaction had come true. In addition, their interviewees rated them less likable and their behaviors more anxious, and independent reviewers rated their conversations more critical.
The researchers point out that those participants who focused on the inside and used safety behaviors saw their negative self-beliefs confirmed when their interviewees and independent reviewers assessed them harshly. This highlights the fact that these strategies are unnecessary and seem to perpetuate the very results that people with SAD try to avoid.
“This is consistent with cognitive models of social anxiety in adults which suggest that specific psychological processes (social cognitions, negative imagery, self-centered attention and safety behaviors) create interlocking reciprocal links that lock individuals into a cycle. social anxiety, ”the study the authors write.
Leigh and her colleagues express the need to explore what makes people more or less likely to trust these inappropriate 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 in adults with SAD have used experiences like theirs to demonstrate to patients the impact of safety behaviors and self-focus. The researchers suggest that this approach should also be integrated into the treatment of young people.
The study, “Self-Focused Attention and Safety Behaviors Maintain Social Anxiety in Adolescents: An Experimental Study,” was authored by Eleanor Leigh, Kenny Chiu and David M. Clark.