Social phobics’ memories are focused on themselves

People with social phobia experience extreme anxiety when they mix with other people. Now a study has shown their memories for social events tend to be experienced as if looking in on themselves from another person’s perspective. And they also contain more information about their own thoughts and behaviour at the expense of detail on what other people were saying or doing, and other sensory detail.

Arnaud D’Argembeau and colleagues made these observations after asking 17 sufferers of social phobia and 17 non-anxious controls to recollect four specific experiences from the last year: a positive and negative social event, and a positive and negative non-social event. The memory differences they observed applied to both negative and positive social events, but not to non-social events.

“As suggested by cognitive models of social phobia, people with social phobia may focus their attention on themselves both while experiencing social situations and while reviewing these situations afterwards, thus favouring the encoding and consolidation of self-referential information in memory”, the researchers concluded.

Speaking to the Digest, lead author Arnaud D’Argembeau explained the implications of these findings for treating social phobia: “Encouraging patients to remember their social experiences in a more balanced manner, by focusing less on themselves and more on how others actually behaved in the situation, may help them to reinterpret their experiences in a more positive manner and may therefore contribute to reduce negative beliefs and expectations regarding their social environment”.

D’Argemeau, A., Van der Linden, M., d’Acremont, M. & Mayers, I. (2006). Phenomenal characteristics of autobiographical memories for social and non-social events in social phobia. (2006). Memory, 14, 637-647.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.