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Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2000, pp.


Self-Focused Attention and Social Anxiety in Social

Phobics and Normal Controls
Sheila R. Woody1,3 and Benjamin F. Rodriguez2

Self-focused attention has been demonstrated to influence and be influenced by situational social anxiety in clients with social phobia, but the mechanisms of this relationship have yet to be established. This study examines the degree to which self-focus
exacerbates anxiety and impairs social performance in normal controls as well as
social phobics. In addition, the role of fear of negative evaluation as a moderator of
this relationship is examined. Results supported the hypothesis of a functional role
of self-focused attention in anxiety but not social performance, and this relationship
held true for participants in the normal control group as well as the social phobia
group. Fear of negative evaluation was surprisingly not a factor in this relationship.
These results are discussed in a framework of shifting attributions for social effectiveness based on the shift in perspective engendered by self-focused attention.
KEY WORDS: self-focus; social phobia; anxiety; attention.

The relationship between negative affect and self-focused attention has received
increasing research attention in the last decade. Several investigators have documented the self-focusing effect of negative mood (Salovey, 1992; Wegner & Guiliano, 1980; Wood, Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990; Wood, Saltzberg, Neale, Stone, &
Rachmiel, 1990), while others have examined the reverse effect, or the degree to
which self-directed attention impacts affect, cognition, or perception (Burgio,
Glass, & Merluzzi, 1982; Fenigstein, 1979; Gibbons, Carver, Scheier, & Hormuth,
st, 1996; Scheier & Carver, 1977; Woody, 1996). Theoretical papers
1979; Lundh & O
have been devoted to explaining the widely documented relationship between selffocused attention and negative affect (Palfai & Salovey, 1992) or psychopathology
(Ingram, 1990). In particular, several writers have attempted to explain the role of
self-focused attention in social anxiety (Hartman, 1983; Hope, Gansler, & Heimberg,
1989; Sarason, 1975; Schlenker & Leary, 1982).
Definitions of self-focused attention abound. Palfai and Salovey (1992) use

Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.

Now at Department of Psychology, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.
Correspondence should be sent to Sheila R. Woody, Department of Psychology, University of British
Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4.

0147-5916/00/0800-0473$18.00/0 2000 Plenum Publishing Corporation


Woody and Rodriguez

the example of a daydream, perhaps of a glorious mountaintop view, to illustrate

that not all internally directed attention is related to the self. Self-focused attention
may be an internal locus to which attention may be directed, as in being absorbed
with ones own thoughts. The focus in the term self-focus may also refer to
content, rather than locus, of thought. This content would refer to material that is
personally relevant, as in being the target of ones own thoughts. Self-awareness
theories most often concern this second type of self-focus, that of self-relevant
thoughts (Carver & Scheier, 1978; Duval & Wicklund, 1973; Hull & Levy, 1979),
but experimenters sometimes blend self-evaluative or self-concerned content with
an internal locus of attention. This distinction is particularly relevant in the measurement of self-focused attention, which has sometimes been inferred from a lack of
external attention (e.g., poor memory for environmental stimuli). An assessment
of self-related content more directly addresses the construct proposed in most
theories of self-awareness.
Self-referential thoughts per se seem unlikely to be maladaptive or associated
with negative affect. For example, self-congratulatory thoughts refer to the self,
but these would not be expected to lead to or result from anxious or depressed
mood. Likewise, compensatory coping strategies for dealing with failure involve selfreferential thoughts, but they are constructive and self-affirming strategies aimed to
lift ones mood (Wood & Dodgson, 1996). In contrast, thoughts related to negative
affect are likely to be pejorative or to have a pessimistic tone. Carver and Scheier
(1981) propose a mechanism by which a shift of attention to an internal focus can
lead to negative affect. In their model, internally directed attention invariably
provokes self-evaluation. This self-evaluation is seen as a part of a self-regulatory
cycle, in which the individual compares aspects of his or her current state with a
salient goal or standard. If the individual perceives a discrepancy between the
current state and a personally held standard (e.g., I feel awkward, but competent
people are not awkward), then the individual evaluates his or her potential for
meeting the standard. If one does not feel confident about ones ability to meet
the goal, then negative affect is expected to intensify.
In the case of social anxiety, all accounts of the cognitive activity of individuals
with social phobia emphasize negative self-evaluation (Beidel, Turner, & Dancu,
1985; Cacioppo, Glass, & Merluzzi, 1979; Glasgow & Arkowitz, 1975; Glass, Merluzzi, Biever, & Larsen, 1982; Stopa & Clark, 1993). In addition, clients with social
phobia devalue the quality of their social performance compared to the judgments
of observers (Alden & Wallace, 1995; Rapee & Lim, 1992; Stopa & Clark, 1993).
In the Alden and Wallace study, for example, participants without social phobia
more accurately estimated their social effectiveness than socially phobic participants
as compared to observer ratings. This devaluation may indicate that socially phobic
clients find a discrepancy between their own performance and an image or standard
performance goal. The role of self-focused attention in this process of biased selfperception has not been fully investigated, although the experimental conditions
in these studies have been potentially self-focusing. For example, to allow observers
to make ratings, participants social interactions often occur in front of a two-way
mirror or camera, commonly used to experimentally provoke a state of self-focused
attention (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1978).

Self-Focus in Social Anxiety


If one observes oneself in a social interaction and identifies a discrepancy

between the current state and the goal, and this discrepancy seems irremediable,
then anxiety is a likely result, particularly if this discrepancy is perceived as threatening. Specifically, the extent to which an individual is afraid of being judged negatively
by others should impact on how anxiety-provoking this perceived discrepancy will
be. For example, a Protestant woman who attends a non-Protestant religious service
for the first time will undoubtedly observe a discrepancy between her own behavior
and the standard rituals engaged in by members of the congregation during the
service. Although it is clear that the discrepancy cannot be remedied that day,
because she lacks knowledge of the expected behaviors, this self-observation may
not result in anxiety if she is not worried that others will judge her negatively for
her noncomforming behavior. Although concern about others judgments surely is
influenced by the particular situation, in general, self-perceived discrepancies are
expected to have their greatest impact in social situations when the individual has
strong fears of negative evaluation.
Thus, if the mechanism proposed by Carver and Scheier is accurate, then
individuals without social phobia would not be expected to show effects of selffocused attention on social anxiety. Although self-focused attention would be expected to provoke the same self-evaluation as for those with social phobia, and
discrepancies may be observed between the individuals current state and a desired
state, those without social phobia are expected to make positive assessments of
their ability to turn out a good performance. Even if self-estimates of performance
quality are poor, the penalty for failure to conform is relatively low if one is not
overly afraid of negative evaluation. As a consequence, self-focused attention would
be effective in helping socially confident persons to regulate their behavior to better
approximate personal standards for performance.
The present study follows a basic methodology for studying self-focus in social
anxiety developed for an earlier experiment (Woody, 1996). In that study, 38 clients
with generalized social phobia participated in pairs in two consecutive contrived
speech tasks. One speech involved self-focus, and the second directed attention
toward a social partner. Self-focused attention increased anticipated anxiety and
anxious appearance regardless of whether the participant was giving a speech or
simply standing before an audience. For participants in a passive social role, selffocused attention also increased anxiety during the task. Surprisingly, social performance was not affected by self-focus. In the present study, the question involved
the relationship between self-focus and social anxiety in a normal comparison group.
In addition, we examined the role of fear of negative evaluation in moderating the
relationship between self-focus and social anxiety.

Two groups of participants were recruited from the greater New Haven area.
The clinical group consisted of 20 clients with a primary diagnosis of social phobia.


Woody and Rodriguez

Approximately 40% of the clients had specifically public-speaking phobia. The

remaining clients, who received a diagnosis of generalized social phobia, all endorsed
severe difficulties in public speaking. The experimental procedure was included as
part of the pretreatment assessment for a group treatment program offered for social
phobia. The comparison group consisted of 20 volunteers solicited by advertisements
placed around Yale University and in New Haven community settings such as
laundromats or bowling alleys. Members of the nonphobic control group received
$10 as compensation for their participation.
Social Anxiety
Social phobia diagnoses were established on the basis of the Structured Clinical
Interview for DSM-III-RPatient Version (SCID-P; Spitzer, Williams, Gibbon, &
First, 1990). The social phobia section of the Anxiety Disorders Interview ScheduleRevised (ADIS-R; DiNardo & Barlow, 1988) was used to supplement the
SCID-P, because the ADIS-R provides more detailed information on the fear and
avoidance experienced by clients. Interviewers were advanced doctoral students in
clinical psychology or doctoral-level psychologists. All diagnostic interviews were
supervised by the senior author (S.R.W.). Members of the comparison group were
carefully screened for social phobia using the social phobia section of the ADISR in a telephone interview. In addition, the telephone interview included singleitem questions designed to detect obvious instances of other anxiety disorders.
These questions were similar to initial questions used in the SCID-P and ADIS-R
at the start of each module. For example, the question used to screen for panic
was Have you ever had a panic attack in which you suddenly felt frightened or
anxious and had a lot of physical symptoms? Members of the comparison group
denied current treatment for any psychological problem.
The Fear of Negative Evaluation questionnaire (FNE; Watson & Friend, 1969)
assesses the degree to which respondents fear the possibility of negative evaluation
from others. While the FNE has often been used a gross indicator of social anxiety
in social phobia treatment studies, it was developed on a student population and
is not a diagnostic measure. Fear of negative evaluation is not limited to those
with social phobia (Heimberg, Hope, Rapee, & Bruch, 1988), so this measure was
appropriate for both the social phobia group as well as the nonphobic control group.
Focus of Attention
The Focus of Attention Questionnaire (FAQ) was developed by Chambless and
Glass (1984) to assess attentional focus during specific social situations. The FAQ is
composed of two 5-item subscales, a self-focus scale (FAQself) and an external-focus
scale (FAQexternal). The self-focus scale contains items related to internally directed
attention to anxiety, cognition, and memory (e.g., I was focusing on past social failures.). The external-focus scale assesses the degree to which clients attend to things
in the social setting other than themselves, such as I was focusing on what the other
person was saying or doing. Respondents complete the questionnaire items on the

Self-Focus in Social Anxiety


basis of an immediately preceding social interaction, such as an in-session exposure

task or homework assignment. Each item includes a 5-point scale ranging from Not
at all to Totally, indicating how much the respondents focus of attention matched
the sentence description. Subscale scores are calculated by averaging the five items.
The full questionnaire has been previously published as appendices in two papers
(Woody, 1996; Woody, Chambless, & Glass, 1997).
FAQself and FAQexternal are independent, with a correlation in the present sample
of r .10 and .22 for the self- and other-focus conditions, respectively. This is
consistent with previous findings with this measure. In previous work, the two
subscales of the FAQ have demonstrated acceptable internal consistency coefficients, and a factor analysis showed all items loaded strongly on the subscale to
which they were assigned. The FAQ measures attentional focus in a specific situation, which is distinct from the construct of private self-consciousness in that the
latter is considered to be a trait measure of degree of attention paid to internal
phenomena like thoughts and feelings. The subscales of the FAQ have shown good
discriminant validity when compared to private self-consciousness (Woody et al.,
1997). Finally, in a previous study using the same methodology as the present study,
the FAQ was used as a manipulation check. Both the FAQself and FAQexternal showed
significant main effects for the focus of attention manipulation (Woody, 1996).
Anxiety and Social Performance
Anticipated anxiety and anxiety during the experimental task were evaluated
by self-report on a 0100 subjective units of distress scale. Audience ratings of
anxious appearance used the same scale. Social performance was evaluated by selfreport and audience ratings on a similar 0100 scale (of opposite valence) where
100 was equivalent to the performance of a highly polished presenter.
Participants engaged in the task in pairs. Two participants stood together in
front of a four person audience composed of research assistants and staff members
at the clinic in which clients with social phobia were seeking treatment. The audience
members were men and women who varied in age from 2050. Most audience
members were unaware of the diagnostic status of participants, who were themselves
unaware of the diagnostic status of their experimental partner. The entire procedure
was videotaped for subsequent rating by observers. An experimenter randomly
assigned speech roles to each participant: a Speaker role or Passive role. The
participant assigned to be the Speaker gave two extemporaneous 2-minute speeches.
The content of the speeches was bodily sensations, cognitions, and emotions associated with standing before an audience, but the person who was the focus of the
speech varied for each trial. In one trial, the content of the Speakers speech focused
on her own current experience: her bodily sensations, cognitions, emotions. In
another trial, the Speakers speech was about the Passive participant: his behavior,
apparent bodily sensations, and suspected cognitions and emotions.
The Passive participant simply stood next to the Speaker during both speeches


Woody and Rodriguez

and said nothing. Because this was an unusual social role, the participant in the
Passive role was given several examples of analogous situations that might occur
outside the laboratory. Appropriate models for behavior would be situations in
which the Passive participant was the subject of a lengthy introduction or roast
in front of an audience. The order of the speeches was counterbalanced. Both
participants were fully briefed on the task before entering the testing room. During
that briefing, participants rated how much anxiety (0100) they anticipated experiencing during each speech. They also rated the degree to which they believed their
social performance would be skillful, on another 0100 scale. Because this was a
novel task, every Speaker received a list of prompts to use as a guide for both
speeches. These prompts included positive and negative emotions, thoughts, bodily
sensations, and overt behavior. While anxiety and related sensations were certainly
a part of this prompt list, most of the items were not related to anxiety. Thus,
Speakers were free to discuss their own anxiety or to discuss other emotions such
as feeling bored, annoyed, rushed, or curious about the experimental task.
Previous research has demonstrated that having other people look directly at a
participant exacerbates social anxiety and self-consciousness (Leary, Britt, Cutlip, &
Templeton, 1992). To ensure that each participant perceived equal scrutiny from
the audience, the experimenter assigned half of the audience to observe the Speaker
and half to observe the Passive participant for the duration of the entire task,
regardless of the focus of the Speakers speech. This was done to constrain the
audience members from their natural tendency to look directly at someone who is
speaking to them. This assignment was undertaken in full view of the participants
before they began the task. Participants were not explicitly informed about the role
of the audience, other than gaze direction.
Although the task was somewhat stressful for some participants, all completed
both trials of the task without escape. Immediately following each speech,
participants rated their anxiety during the speech and gave a self-rating of their
social performance on the same 0100 scales used before the task. Additionally,
participants completed the FAQ following each speech. Participants also completed an FNE during the experiment, which was randomized either before or
after the task.
Observer ratings were taken from videotapes of the tasks. During the rating
sessions, half of the video monitor was covered while observers rated one participant
at a time. This procedure also allowed for all observers to rate all participants. A
pool of four volunteer judges, unaware of the specific hypotheses of the study or
the diagnostic status of participants, viewed the videotapes of the speeches in real
time. Judges had received instruction in rating social performance and anxious
appearance from the first author, and they had previously practiced rating anxious
appearance and social performance on archival videotapes. Because of the unique
nature of the Passive role, judges used the same referent for skillful appearance as
the Passive participants used, namely, a lengthy introduction or roast before an
audience. The four judges were all bachelors or masters level research assistants.
Despite their minimal training, judges ratings were reliable; intraclass correlations
ranged from .76.99 for judgments of anxious and skillful appearance in both the
self- and other-focus conditions.

Self-Focus in Social Anxiety


Results were analyzed using a split-plot factorial analysis of variance. There
were two between-participants factors, speech role and diagnostic group, and one
within-participants factor, focus of attention. Focus of attention was a repeated
measure, with each participant experiencing both a self-focusing and an otherfocusing condition. Dependent variables were self-ratings of anticipated anxiety
and social performance, as well as self-rated anxiety and social performance during
the task. Main effects for focus of attention on anxiety were expected, indicating
self-focused attention increased the amount of anxiety experienced by participants.
Consistent with the results from Woody (1996), attention was not expected to affect
social performance measures.
Manipulation Check
A manipulation check was conducted to ensure that the experimental task
succeeded in changing focus of attention across speech conditions. A split-plot
ANOVA revealed a significant within-subject effect of focus of attention condition
on the FAQself subscale (F(1,37) 17.20, p .0002, partial 2 .32) indicating
the manipulation succeeded in changing self-focus in the intended direction. The
between-subjects main effect for group was also significant (F(1,37) 5.82, p
.02, partial 2 .14); participants with social phobia were generally more selffocused than the control group participants. However, there was no significant main
effect for speech role and no interaction effect. Changes in focus of attention in
each focus condition are depicted graphically in Fig. 1.
Similarly, an ANOVA using the FAQexternal subscale as the dependent variable
indicated an effect of focus condition (F(1,37) 12.12, p .001, partial 2 .25),
confirming that the participants level of external-focus also changed corresponding
to focus condition. The analysis also revealed a significant effect for speech role
(F(1,37) 10.67, p .002, partial 2 .22) on FAQexternal. Participants in the Passive
role scored significantly higher in external focus than Speakers across conditions
of the experiment (t 3.5, p .003; see Table I for means). This result may be due
to the fact that Passive participants attention was naturally drawn to the Speaker,
whereas the nature of the Passive role made it a less salient stimulus to attract the
Speakers attention. In contrast to the significant differences between diagnostic
groups observed on the FAQself, the socially phobic and nonphobic control groups
were equivalent on the FAQexternal scale. The interaction between focus of attention
and diagnostic group was also not significant.
A preliminary examination of the data ruled out the presence of extreme scores.
Means and standard deviations for measures of anxiety and social performance are
listed in Table I. Analyses of measures of social anxiety and social performance
were conducted using split-plot analysis of variance, with focus of attention as a
within-subjects factor and speech role and diagnosis as between-subjects factors.


Woody and Rodriguez

Fig. 1. Manipulation check: focus of attention by experimental condition. SP social phobia

group; NC normal comparison group; FAQself and FAQesternal Self-Focus and ExternalFocus subscales of Focus of Attention Questionnaire, respectively.

Three dependent measures of anxiety were examined: anticipated anxiety, selfreported anxiety during the task, and anxious appearance. Analysis of anticipated
anxiety revealed a significant main effect for focus of attention (F(1,37) 9.07,
p .005, partial 2 .20). Participants anticipated more anxiety in self-focusing
speech conditions than in other-focusing conditions. There was also a main effect
for speech role (F(1,37) 4.16, p .05, partial 2 .10), in which Speakers
anticipated more anxiety than those assigned to the Passive role. Surprisingly, there
were no significant main effects or interactions involving diagnostic group, indicating
that participants anticipated equivalent amounts of anxiety in the face of these
experimental conditions, regardless of diagnostic status.
Self-report of anxiety during the task, arguably the most important measure,
demonstrated a main effect of focus of attention (F(1,37) 6.15, p .02, partial
2 .14). Participants reported experiencing more anxiety in the self-focus condition
than in the other-focus condition. There were no effects of speech role or diagnostic
group and no interactions for anxiety during the task.
Observer ratings revealed participants appeared more anxious in the self-focus
condition (F(1,37) 22.79, p .0001, partial 2 .38) and in the Speaker role

Focus of Attention QuestionnaireSelf

Focus of Attention QuestionnaireExternal
Anticipated Anxiety (0100)
Anxiety During Task (0100)
Anxious Appearance (0100)
Anticipated Social Performance (0100)
Self-Rated Social Performance (0100)
Observer-Rated Social Performance (0100)




Speaker role





Passive role

Self-focus condition





Speaker role





Passive role

Other-focus condition

Table I. Anxiety and Social Performance in Self- and Other-Focused Conditions

Self-Focus in Social Anxiety



Woody and Rodriguez

(F(1,37) 5.43, p .02, partial 2 .13), with no significant interactions. There

was also a trend for raters to judge socially phobic participants as appearing more
anxious than those in the nonphobic comparison group, although this effect was
not statistically significant (F(1,37) 3.49, p .07, partial 2 .09). There were
no significant interactions involving diagnostic group.
In a supplemental analysis, we examined discrepancy between observer and
participant self-ratings of anxious appearance with a 2 (observer vs. participant)
2 (focus of attention) 2 (speech role) split-plot ANOVA. In addition to the
significant effects reported above for focus of attention and speech role, there was
a main effect for rater (F(1,37) 14.79, p .0005). Observers judged participants
as appearing more anxious than the participants reported feeling. However, there
were no significant interactions involving raters, indicating that this bias occurred
relatively uniformly across diagnostic groups and experimental conditions.
Social Performance
Participants anticipated social skill ratings revealed a main effect for focus of
attention (F(1,37) 7.91, p .007, partial 2 .18), with poorer social performance
being anticipated for the self-focus condition. There was also a main effect for
diagnostic group (F(1,37) 11.11, p .002, partial 2 .23), indicating that
individuals with social phobia predicted giving a poorer performance than those in
the nonphobic comparison group. The interaction between focus condition and
diagnostic group was nonsignificant (F(1,37) 3.69, p .06, partial 2 .09).
Because a statistical trend was observed in this interaction, simple effects tests were
performed comparing the two diagnostic groups across both focus conditions, but
these tests revealed no significant differences.
Self-ratings of social performance during the task were not affected by focus
of attention or speech role, but there was a significant effect of diagnostic group
(F(1,37) 14.48, p .0005, partial 2 .28). Consistent with prior studies, individuals with social phobia rated themselves as significantly less skillful than those in
the nonphobic comparison group. There were no significant interactions for selfrated social performance.
There were no significant main effects or interactions for observer-rated social
performance. This failure to disconfirm the null hypothesis is consistent with our
previous findings using this experimental paradigm and is not attributable to either
poor inter-rater reliability or range restriction. Comparable to the analysis for
anxious appearance, we conducted a supplemental ANOVA including rater (observer vs. self-report) as a factor for social performance. Although there was no
main effect for rater, there was a significant interaction between rater and diagnostic
group (F(1,37) 9.24, p .004) in addition to a main effect for group (F(1,37)
8.48, p .006).
Post hoc simple effects tests reveal an interesting pattern. Recall that the
observers did not judge the diagnostic groups to be significantly different on social
performance, but that participants did: those with social phobia rated themselves as
significantly less skillful than those in the nonphobic control group. The interaction
between raters and diagnostic group reveals that socially phobic participants were

Self-Focus in Social Anxiety


in general agreement with the observers regarding their level of social performance
(t(18) 1.12 and 1.56, p .14, for self- and other-focus conditions, respectively).
However, nonphobic control group members consistently rated themselves as more
skillful than the observers rated them to be (t(18) 2.75 and 2.87, p .01, for selfand other-focus conditions, respectively). This complicated interaction is depicted in
Fig. 2.
Fear of Negative Evaluation
As described, the members of the normal comparison group showed substantially the same response to self-focused attention in a speech situation as those with
social phobia. We next turned to evaluating the role of fear of negative evaluation
in moderating the relationship between self-focus and social anxiety.
A preliminary comparison revealed an expected difference between diagnostic
groups on the FNE (t(31) 3.95, p .0004). Participants with social phobia reported
significantly more FNE (21.3 8.2) than those without social phobia (12.9 4.9).
Self-focused attention, as measured by the FAQself, was significantly correlated with
FNE, particularly when participants were in a self-focused condition (r .57 and

Fig. 2. Discrepancy between self-rated and observer-rated social



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.35 for self- and other-focus conditions, respectively). This pattern of correlations
suggests that participants who were higher in FNE more readily became self-focused.
To test whether fear of negative evaluation serves to moderate the relationship
between self-focus and anxiety, the FNE and FAQself were used as predictors of selfreported anxiety in a multiple regression analysis. Predictors were simultaneously
entered into the analysis. The regression analysis revealed a strong relationship
between self-focus and social anxiety during both experimental conditions, both
when participants attention was intended to be focused on themselves and when
their attention was manipulated toward their social partner. However, neither FNE
nor the interaction between FNE and self-focus were significant predictors of selfreported anxiety (Table II). These regressions were also repeated separately by
diagnostic group. Although the groups were small, the results were no different
from those reported for the full sample.
Correlations between FNE and social anxiety in the self- and other-focused
conditions were moderately low and not statistically significant (r .22 and .27,
respectively). Thus, while self-focused attention was related to FNE and to selfreported anxiety, FNE was not related to anxiety, suggesting that it does not
moderate the relationship between self-focus and social anxiety.

The main purpose of this study was to further examine the previously observed
relationship between self-focused attention and anxiety in social phobia. Specifically,
the study addressed whether the anxiety-provoking effects of self-focused attention
would generalize to a normal comparison group. As expected, under conditions of
self-focused attention, participants anticipated more anxiety and reported feeling
more anxiety during the task. Participants also appeared more anxious to objective
judges when they were in a self-focused condition, even though these judges were
unaware of the purposes of the experiment and diagnostic category. Surprisingly,
the normal comparison group did not respond differently to the self-focus manipulation than the social phobia group. These findings, which replicate and extend those
of an earlier study (Woody, 1996), suggest that self-focused attention does play a
functional role in the exacerbation and maintenance of social anxiety. However,
the results also imply that this relationship is not unique to those with pathologic
levels of social anxiety.
Table II. Results of Regressions using Self-Focus and Fear of Negative Evaluation to
Predict Self-Reported Anxiety During the Task

Self-Focus condition
(Full Model R 2 .46)
Other-Focus condition
(Full Model R 2 .45)


Partial R 2

F Value

p Value




Self-Focus in Social Anxiety


In terms of the self-regulatory process proposed by Carver and Scheier (1981),

these results suggest a potentially simpler mechanism for the path from self-focused
attention to anxiety. Self-focused attention did result in more anxiety for both
socially phobic and nonclinical participants. This anxiety, however, does not appear
to have been related to self-perceived discrepancy between current state and desired
state, if self-ratings of social performance can be taken as any indication. Normal
control participants rated themselves quite confidently, even more generously than
objective observers, which would be inconsistent with the view that their social
anxiety in the self-focused condition resulted from a poor self-opinion of their
performance. Nevertheless, these indicators of self-perceived discrepancy are only
inferred, and a stronger test would be provided by directly evaluating participants
social standards and self-efficacy for achieving those standards.
Self-focus may serve to make the individual aware of signs of a suboptimal
performance, as Carver and Scheier imply, but if this is the case, one would expect
that this awareness would result in potentiated anxiety in the presence of high fear
of negative evaluation. In the present study, fear of negative evaluation played no
role in moderating the relationship between self-focus and anxiety. The FNE may
simply be too broad a measure for this purpose. A more specific measure of fear
of publicly observable symptoms, being more closely tied to the threatening stimuli
participants are presumably observing in self-focus (e.g., blushing, trembling), might
moderate the relationship.
The effect size of the self-focus manipulation was stronger for observer ratings
(partial 2 .38) than for participants ratings of their own anxiety (partial 2
.14). While Speakers were prompted to discuss a number of different aspects of
their current experience, and the apparent experience of the Passive participant,
many Speakers did address anxiety and sensations associated with anxiety. The
stronger effect of the self-focus manipulation on observer ratings may in part be
due to a confound with the greater appearance of anxiety that comes from simply
pointing out behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are associated with anxiety. This
effect would likely have been stronger for observer ratings, as participants also
likely relied on internal sources of information in making assessment of their own
anxiety levels.
Members of the normal control group experienced as much anxiety as those
in the social phobia group, but they related their social performance higher. One
way to understand this paradox might be in how those with social phobia coped with
the added social anxiety produced by self-focused attention. Using the framework
proposed by Wood and Dodgson (1996), perhaps those with social phobia responded
to the added anxiety by ruminating about their social inadequacy, thereby perpetuating the anxiety-promoting self-focused state (c.f. Ingram, 1990). Normal control
participants, on the other hand, might have responded to the additional anxiety
by compensating: recruiting positive conceptions of themselves and devaluing the
importance of the experimental task. While this compensation still involves selffocus, the individual is not being self-critical. Future studies in this area might do
well to specifically assess the content of self-directed thoughts to test this idea.
Discrepancy in self-evaluation of social performance was also an area of interest
in the current study. Previous studies have revealed that clients with social phobia


Woody and Rodriguez

devalue their social performance as compared to observer judgments (Alden & Wallace, 1995; Rapee & Lim, 1992; Stopa & Clark, 1993). Surprisingly, in the current study
socially phobic participants rated their own social performance relatively accurately.
While their ratings of their own social skill were lower than observer ratings, the
difference was not significant. Conversely, normal control participants significantly
overrated how well they performed compared to the ratings of observers.
This finding brings to mind the depressive realism described by Alloy and
Abramson (1979). In that study, dysphoric college students were more accurate in
their estimations of their own degree of control over a noncontingent event than
happier students, who overestimated their control. Alloy and Abramson concluded
that the perceptions of nondysphoric students were influenced by a self-serving
attributional bias that caused them to overestimate their amount of control. In a
similar way, self-focused attention may impact on ones judgment of social performance by altering attributional biases that are influenced by perspective. The widely
studied actor-observer bias is an example: individuals making attributions must
often cite circumstances of the situation to explain their own behavior, whereas
uninvolved observers of the same situation tend to point to personal characteristics
of the individuals involved in the action. Perhaps attributional biases shift as a
result of self-focus, so that social phobics make judgments about themselves as
though they were observers rather than actors. This hypothesis is currently being
tested by members of our research group.
One implication of this theory is that persons with social phobia may rely more
heavily on current and past attributions of social performance to form estimates
of their likely future social effectiveness. Rapee and Hayman (1996) have similarly
suggested that self-appraisal of performance might be based on a mental representation of how one looks to an observer. Excessive focus on internal sensations and
anxiety-related cognitions may provide a poor mental image of ones performance.
Rapee and Hayman found that self-ratings of performance quality were enhanced
after participants viewed a videotape of themselves giving a speech. Viewing the
videotape of their own performance also influenced participants to make more
positive ratings of their performance in a subsequent speech.
Assuming normal control participants have a wider variety of successful experiences on which to base estimates of future performance, social phobics may be
unduly influenced by these attributions based on a self-focused perspective. Thus,
social phobics may from their expectations for future (and current) performance
from internal comparisons based on internal attributions, such as I dont want to
mess this up like I did my last date/interview/speech. Less socially anxious persons
who are less self-focused during social interactions may be inclined to base expectations for performance partly on situational contingencies, such as I think I can do
as well as my friend/classmate/peer did in the same situation.
Another surprising finding was that socially phobic participants did not experience more anxiety during the task than nonphobic controls. In most cases for those
with social phobia, giving a speech represents their greatest fear, and being the
object of others evaluative attention certainly provokes intense anxiety. Although
we replicated the methodology from Woody (1996) as closely as possible, and the
general pattern of results is the same, the social phobia group in this study reported

Self-Focus in Social Anxiety


considerably less anxiety in the same scenario than the Woody (1996) sample
composed only of generalized social phobics. Anxiety ratings for social phobics in
this study were approximately one standard deviation below those obtained in the
earlier study. In addition, reflecting the effect of negative affect in raising selffocused attention, FAQexternal scores were much higher in the earlier study, although
FAQexternal scores were comparable.
It is probable that the clients in the present study, being a mixed group of
those with generalized and specific social phobia, formed a less severe experimental
group than the one in the earlier study. The FNE scores (21.3 8.2) of these social
phobics were akin to other socially phobic samples reported in the literature. The
Turner and Beidel group have reported means of 22.2 and 23.3 (Beidel et al., 1985;
Turner, Beidel, Dancu, & Keys, 1986), which are very comparable to our group.
The differences between the current social phobia sample and the earlier sample
may nevertheless lie in the inclusion of mixed subtypes of social phobia in the
present study. However, even with a potentially less severe clinical group, selffocused attention increased anxiety but did not influence social performance, and
this process was observed in both the clinical and normal comparison groups.

We would like to thank the many students and staff members who contributed
to this project. Although they are too numerous to list them all, special thanks go
to Jamelah Salahi, Betty Litto, and Helena Grenham.
Portions of this paper were presented as a poster at the 1996 conference of
the Eastern Psychological Association in Washington, DC.

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