Self-focused attention and social anxiety


Lynne Harris, PhD, School of Psychological Sciences, Australian College of Applied Psychology, Level 5, 11 York Street, Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia. Email:


Cognitive models propose that self-focused attention (SFA) interacts with fear of negative evaluation to maintain social anxiety. Thus, the effect of SFA on anxiety would be expected to be specific to those with existing social concerns. However, much research suggests that the effect of SFA on anxiety occurs across anxiety levels. Manipulations of attention focus have been criticised for (1) lack of ecological validity and (2) eliciting fear of negative evaluation directly. The present study examined the role of SFA in social anxiety using an ecologically valid procedure that did not elicit fear of negative evaluation directly. Self-reported anxiety was assessed among high and low socially anxious individuals under conditions of SFA or external-focused attention. The manipulation successfully altered focus of attention but did not directly affect fear of negative evaluation or self-reported anxiety. Taken together with the findings of previous studies, the results suggest that focusing on internal physiological states per se does not increase self-reported social anxiety, and that self-focus that does not have an explicitly evaluative dimension does not elicit social anxiety. The findings have implications for approaches to reducing social anxiety through reducing SFA.