Social Anxiety is Characterized by Biased Learning About Performance and the Self

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Abstract

People learn about their self from social information, and recent work suggests that healthy adults show a positive bias for learning self-related information. In contrast, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is characterized by a negative view of the self, yet what causes and maintains this negative self-view is not well understood. Here the authors use a novel experimental paradigm and computational model to test the hypothesis that biased social learning regarding self-evaluation and self-feelings represents a core feature that distinguishes adults with SAD from healthy controls. Twenty-one adults with SAD and 35 healthy controls (HCs) performed a speech in front of 3 judges. They subsequently evaluated themselves and received performance feedback from the judges and then rated how they felt about themselves and the judges. Affective updating (i.e., change in feelings about the self over time, in response to feedback from the judges) was modeled using an adapted Rescorla-Wagner learning model. HCs demonstrated a positivity bias in affective updating, which was absent in SAD. Further, self-performance ratings revealed group differences in learning from positive feedback—a difference that endured at an average of 1 year follow up. These findings demonstrate the presence and long-term endurance of positively biased social learning about the self among healthy adults, a bias that is absent or reversed among socially anxious adults.

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