Social Anxiety and the Recall of Interpersonal Information

By Hope, Debra A.; Heimberg, Richard G. et al. | Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

Social Anxiety and the Recall of Interpersonal Information


Hope, Debra A., Heimberg, Richard G., Klein, John F., Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy


Sixty subjects classified as high or low in social anxiety participated in a structured heterosocial interaction under conditions of either high or low social-evaluative threat. Following the interaction, subjects were asked to recall detailed information about the interaction partner's appearance and the content of the conversation. Socially anxious subjects recalled less information and made more errors in recall than nonanxious subjects. Contrary to prediction, social-evaluative threat did not affect recall. Anxious subjects also reported greater self-focused attention during the interaction. High self-focused attention was associated with superior recall for nonanxious subjects but associated with more frequent omission errors for anxious subjects. Results support cognitive-behavioral formulations of social anxiety which propose that socially anxious individuals engage in self-focused thinking which may impair their ability to process social information.

Social anxiety is a common (Bryant & Trower, 1974; Pilkonis & Zimbardo, 1979) and potentially debilitating problem (Amies, Gelder, & Shaw, 1983; Heimberg, Dodge, & Becker, 1987). Recent research on social anxiety has focused on the cognitive aspects of socially anxious individuals, including their self-statement patterns. For example, socially anxious subjects report more negative (Cacioppo, Glass, & Merluzzi, 1979) and fewer positive (Heimberg, Acerra, & Holstein, 1985) self-statements than nonanxious subjects in anticipation of meeting a person of the opposite sex. Hartman (1984) has proposed that the self-statements of socially anxious individuals are related to four themes:

1. Thoughts of general social inadequacy.

2. Concerns that their anxiety will be visible to others.

3. Fear of negative evaluation.

4. Preoccupation with arousal or performance.

Sarason (1975) has labeled this pattern of self-focused, negative cognitions "anxious self preoccupation." Several studies suggest that socially anxious individuals are "anxiously self-preoccupied." For instance, they exhibit excessive processing of information related to how they are viewed by others (Smith, Ingram, & Brehm, 1983), are excessively concerned with whether or not others will perceive their anxiety (McEwan & Devins, 1983), and report more self-focused and fewer other-focused thoughts during social interactions than nonanxious subjects (Hope, Heimberg, Zollo, Nyman, & O'Brien, 1987).

Various theories have proposed that anxious self-preoccupation interferes with social performance (Hartman, 1983; Heimberg et al., 1987). Hartman suggests that the socially anxious individual's excessive focusing on his or her own cognitive, physiological, and behavioral processes is part of a feedback loop that distances the individual from the interaction and thus interferes with his or her ability to function adequately. Others (Buss, 1980; Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975; Leary, 1983) have suggested that a particular type of self-focus-the awareness of oneself as a social object, typically referred to as public self-consciousness-is a prerequisite for the occurrence of social anxiety. Indeed, high public self-consciousness has been associated with sensitivity to interpersonal rejection (Fenigstein, 1979) and with poorer performance in a behavioral test (Hope & Heimberg, 1988), particularly when the individual has low expectancies for good social performance (Burgio, Merluzzi, & Pryor, 1986). Assuming a fixed capacity model of attention, any attention focused on the self necessarily detracts from the amount of attention available to focus on the other individual (Wine, 1971). Excessive self-focus should reduce an individual's effectiveness in social interactions by preventing him or her from devoting adequate attention to the partner's verbal and nonverbal behavior.

Only a few studies provide evidence that anxious self-preoccupation interferes with social functioning.

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