Category: Adult Anxiety - Social
Background: Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to understand others’ mental states (e.g., emotions, beliefs, desires). Although significant work has delineated ToM deficits in the context of Schizophrenia and Autism Spectrum Disorders (Brüne, 2005; Baron-Cohen, 2000), very few studies have examined ToM in individuals with social anxiety, even though fear of others’ negative evaluations is a cardinal feature. Hezel and McNally (2014) and Washburn et al. (2016) both found ToM deficits in individuals diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). However, little is known about whether socially anxious individuals from non-clinical samples show similar ToM anomalies. This study sought to extend previous research on atypical ToM in socially anxious individuals to a non-clinical sample. We tested the hypothesis that ToM task performance would vary among young adults with low, low clinical-range, and clinical-range self-reported social anxiety symptoms. We predicted that the clinical-range group would obtain the lowest scores on a measure of ToM and the low-anxious group would obtain the highest scores.
Method: Racially/ethnically diverse college students (n=279; 80% female) completed a demographic questionnaire, the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale-Self-Report Version (LSAS-SR; Fresco et al., 2001; Oakman et al., 2003) and the Reading the Mind in the Eyes scale (MIE; Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). Participants were grouped according to their LSAS-SR scores (< 30=low anxiety (n=103); 30-59=low clinical-range (n=78); 60+=high clinical-range (n=98)).
Results: A one-way ANOVA comparing the 3 groups (low anxiety, low clinical, and high clinical) yielded evidence of a statistically significant omnibus difference in MIE scores, F(2,276) = 5.67, p < .01. The results of a Tukey HSD post hoc test indicated that the high clinical group’s MIE (M = 22.60, SD = 4.74) scores were significantly lower than those for the nonclinical group (M = 24.56, SD = 4.46), p < .01. The low clinical group’s scores (M = 24.09, SD = 3.26) did not differ significantly from those for either the low anxiety group (p = .74) or the high clinical group (p = .06).
Conclusion: Consistent with Hezel and McNally (2014) and Washburn et. al. (2016), we found that young adults with high levels of social anxiety performed more poorly than less anxious peers on a measure of ToM. Notably, ToM performance for those whose LSAS-SR scores were elevated, but not extreme, did not differ significantly from that of low-anxious peers. Our results suggest that individuals with severe social anxiety are at risk for misreading others’ cues in social situations, which may further exacerbate their fears of negative evaluation. Milder social anxiety, in contrast, does not appear to relate to proclivity to misread social cues. Given that the association between ToM errors and severe social anxiety may be dynamic and reciprocal, research is needed that examines the way in which the two interact over time. Such work could help target points of intervention at which errors that fuel anxiety might be circumvented.