Social inference and social anxiety: Evidence of a fear-congruent self-referential learning bias

Katherine S. Button, Michael Browning, Marcus R. Munafò, Glyn Lewis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (SciVal)


Background and objectives: Fears of negative evaluation characterise social anxiety, and preferential processing of fear-relevant information is implicated in maintaining symptoms. Little is known, however, about the relationship between social anxiety and the process of inferring negative evaluation. The ability to use social information to learn what others think about one, referred to here as self-referential learning, is fundamental for effective social interaction. The aim of this research was to examine whether social anxiety is associated with self-referential learning. Methods: 102 Females with either high (n = 52) or low (n = 50) self-reported social anxiety completed a novel probabilistic social learning task. Using trial and error, the task required participants to learn two self-referential rules, 'I am liked' and 'I am disliked'. Results: Participants across the sample were better at learning the positive rule 'I am liked' than the negative rule 'I am disliked', β = -6.4, 95% CI [-8.0, -4.7], p < 0.001. This preference for learning positive self-referential information was strongest in the lowest socially anxious and was abolished in the most symptomatic participants. Relative to the low group, the high anxiety group were better at learning they were disliked and worse at learning they were liked, social anxiety by rule interaction β = 3.6; 95% CI [+0.3, +7.0], p = 0.03. Limitations: The specificity of the results to self-referential processing requires further research. Conclusions: Healthy individuals show a robust preference for learning that they are liked relative to disliked. This positive self-referential bias is reduced in social anxiety in a way that would be expected to exacerbate anxiety symptoms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1082-1087
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Issue number4
Early online date25 May 2012
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • Cognitive bias
  • Self-referential learning
  • Social anxiety
  • Social phobia


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