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BACKGROUND: The identification of negative self-imagery as a maintenance factor in adult social anxiety has led to enhanced treatments for this population. Whilst intrusive negative imagery is commonly reported by socially anxious adolescents, no studies have demonstrated that it plays a causal role in maintaining symptoms. To assess this possibility, we undertook an experimental study manipulating social self-imagery in high socially anxious adolescents. METHODS: High socially anxious adolescents undertook two conversations under different conditions. During one conversation they held a negative social self-image in mind, and in the other they held a benign social self-image in mind. Self-report, conversation partner report and independent assessor ratings were taken. RESULTS: When participants held a negative self-image in mind, they reported feeling more anxious, and believed they looked more anxious and performed more poorly. Furthermore, they overestimated how anxious they looked compared to conversation partner ratings. As well as distorting participants' perception of their anxious appearance, holding a negative image in mind also had observable effects on the interaction. Participants were rated as looking more anxious and performing less well by their conversation partner when they held such images in mind, and the conversation was rated more critically by conversation partners and independent observers. Finally, a preliminary mediation analysis suggested that the detrimental effect of negative imagery on the social interaction may be partly due to the spontaneous use of avoidant safety behaviours. CONCLUSIONS: The findings provide support for a causal role of negative self-imagery in adolescent social anxiety and point to the potential clinical value of techniques targeting imagery to treat the disorder.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Adolescent, Anxiety, Female, Humans, Imagery, Psychotherapy, Male, Social Behavior