June 11, 2019

Dear colleagues,

The National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC) provides information about relevant research in service of disseminating and promoting evidence-based treatment of social anxiety disorder.

A recent University of British Columbia study demonstrates that the memory of positive feedback quickly erodes for socially anxious persons, becoming less positive in their perception just one week after the performance compared to what they had recalled immediately after the performance. In contrast, the memory of positive feedback does not become more negative over time for non-socially anxious persons.

In the study, reported on in the April, 2019 issue of The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 59 volunteers with social anxiety disorder and 63 nonanxious volunteers were each given the unexpected task of speaking for 3 minutes on any subject in front of a judge who would be evaluating the quality of their performance. Rather than their actual performance being evaluated, each participant was randomly given either mainly positive or mainly neutral feedback on each of 14 different aspects of their speech.

The participants were each asked to recall the judge’s feedback for them just five minutes after the speech, and again one week later using the same 14-item scale. Both the socially anxious and nonanxious persons were able to recall fewer feedback items after one week. The socially anxious persons recalled the feedback as significantly less positive after one week than it actually was. The memory of the non-socially anxious persons did not become less positive after one week.

Brianne Glazier, the study’s main author, stated in an interview with PsyPost that “The most important thing to take away from this study is that for those with high levels of social anxiety, the positivity in their memories tends to erode over time, making it harder for them to remember positive experiences and perpetuating their fear of social situations. For those who do have high social anxiety, they should make an effort to focus on and remember the positive aspects of their social experiences.”

What strategies do you use to help socially anxious clients preserve the positive learning they achieved through behavioral experiments, and lessen their tendency for post-event self-critical rumination?

In addition to worksheets (attached) designed to help socially anxious clients identify what they learned from doing behavioral experiments, I encourage clients to keep a daily Pride and Gratitude Log: a positive evidence log about their strengths/qualities. (See attached client handouts, which you are welcome to use/adapt.) I also train clients to “be a good parent/friend” to themselves after experiments: to pat themselves on their backs verbally for the positive steps they took and what they learned, rather than beat themselves up in post-event rumination. I describe these strategies in a blog post.

Glazier, Brianne L. and Alden, Lynn E. Social anxiety disorder and memory for positive feedback. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 128(3), Apr 2019, 228-233.

Larry Cohen, LICSW
Cochair and cofounder, National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC)
Representative of NSAC DC (Social Anxiety Help)