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OBJECTIVE: We evaluated the utility of a novel, picture-based tool to measure how adolescents interpret and attribute cause to social exchanges and whether biases in these processes relate to social anxiety. Briefly presented ambiguous visual social scenes, each containing a photograph of the adolescent as the protagonist, were followed by three possible interpretations (positive, negative, neutral/unrelated) and two possible causal attributions (internal, external) to which participants responded. METHOD: Ninety-five adolescents aged 14 to 17 recruited from mainstream schools, with varying levels of social anxiety rated the likelihood of positive, negative and unrelated interpretations before selecting the single interpretation they deemed as most likely. This was followed by a question prompting them to decide between an internal or external causal attribution for the interpreted event. RESULTS: Across scenarios, adolescents with higher levels of social anxiety rated negative interpretations as more likely and positive interpretations as less likely compared to lower socially anxious adolescents. Higher socially anxious adolescents were also more likely to select internal attributions to negative and less likely to select internal attributions for positive events than adolescents with lower levels of social anxiety. CONCLUSIONS: Adolescents with higher social anxiety display cognitive biases in interpretation and attribution. This tool is suitable for measuring cognitive biases of complex visual-social cues in youth populations with social anxiety and simulates the demands of daily social experiences more closely. LIMITATIONS: As we did not measure depressive symptoms, we cannot be sure that biases linked to social anxiety are not due to concurrent low mood.

Original publication




Journal article


J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry

Publication Date





250 - 256


Adolescence, Attribution, Cognitive bias, Development, Interpretation, Social anxiety, Adolescent, Adolescent Behavior, Anxiety Disorders, Female, Humans, Internal-External Control, Male, Social Perception