BACKGROUND: Fear of negative evaluation (FNE) defines social anxiety yet the process of inferring social evaluation, and its potential role in maintaining social anxiety, is poorly understood. We developed an instrumental learning task to model social evaluation learning, predicting that FNE would specifically bias learning about the self but not others.
METHODS: During six test blocks (3 self-referential, 3 other-referential), participants (n = 100) met six personas and selected a word from a positive/negative pair to finish their social evaluation sentences "I think [you are / George is]…". Feedback contingencies corresponded to 3 rules, liked, neutral and disliked, with P[positive word correct] = 0.8, 0.5 and 0.2, respectively.
RESULTS: As FNE increased participants selected fewer positive words (β = -0.4, 95% CI -0.7, -0.2, p = 0.001), which was strongest in the self-referential condition (FNE × condition 0.28, 95% CI 0.01, 0.54, p = 0.04), and the neutral and dislike rules (FNE × condition × rule, p = 0.07). At low FNE the proportion of positive words selected for self-neutral and self-disliked greatly exceeded the feedback contingency, indicating poor learning, which improved as FNE increased.
CONCLUSIONS: FNE is associated with differences in processing social-evaluative information specifically about the self. At low FNE this manifests as insensitivity to learning negative self-referential evaluation. High FNE individuals are equally sensitive to learning positive or negative evaluation, which although objectively more accurate, may have detrimental effects on mental health.