Friends of the Behavioral Economics Blog, this week we present the paper “The longitudinal interplay between attention bias and interpretation bias in social anxiety in adolescents”, by Henricks, L. A.; Lange, W. G.; Luijten, M.; van den Berg, Y. H. M.; Stoltz, S. E. M. J.; Cillessen, A. H. N. and Becker, E. S. (2022), in which authors carry out a study to know whether the attention bias and the interpretation bias are related to social anxiety in teenagers, and if so, how. 

Social anxiety is closely related to the fear of being negatively evaluated by others and is often accompanied by avoidance of social situations. This type of anxiety has its onset in childhood, but symptoms increase during adolescence.

Young sufferers experience serious socioemotional consequences, such as an increased risk of peer victimization, depression and even substance abuse. Therefore, early detection and treatment are extremely important, highlighting the need to devote efforts and resources to research into the factors that contribute to the onset and maintenance of social anxiety. 

Many cognitive models assume that biased cognitive processing is a very influential factor. Especially, negative attention bias (that is, the tendency to pay more attention to negative stimuli) and negative interpretation bias (the tendency to negatively interpret ambiguous social situations) would increase the risk of experiencing social anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents. 

One of the existing studies showed that adolescents with a negative interpretation style are at increased risk for social anxiety. However, longitudinal evidence on the role of negative attention bias and negative interpretation bias is still lacking. 

At the same time, most studies in young population investigated the effects of these biases on social anxiety ignoring the fact that both may be related or interact with each other. 

To overcome these limitations, the study in the article focuses on the interaction between attention bias and interpretation bias, and examines the longitudinal predictive ability of cognitive biases on social anxiety in adolescence. 

Adolescence is a period that may be critical for the development of cognitive biases as a result of sociocognitive maturation. Adolescents, at this stage of life, become able to think and reason abstractly and develop metacognitive beliefs.

In some previous studies it was seen that negative interpretation bias is apparently related to an increased risk of experiencing anxiety symptoms, including social anxiety. 

On the other hand, attention bias is a complex phenomenon consisting of multiple components. For example, it is characterized by increased engagement with threat, as socially fearful individuals are quicker to detect negative stimuli in an environment. It is important to understand this point because of the multifactorial nature of these biases. 

In this study, the aim was to examine both attentional and interpretation biases and their components, all through a visual search task in which participants had to detect or ignore a social threat. 

The combined bias hypothesis is also considered, as the authors believe it possible that attentional bias and interpretation bias are related and influence each other. 

For this purpose, data from 2017, 2018, and 2019 were gathered. A total of 816 young people from different grades of secondary education, in the context of the Netherlands, participated. 

A visual search task was created with images of adolescent faces expressing different emotions. The participants had to point out those they found threatening and neutral. 

It seems that attentional bias is not as closely related to social anxiety as authors predicted. However, the greater the negative interpretation bias, the greater the tendency to suffer from social anxiety.

Future research could examine how these biases behave in stressful situations, to find out how they would influence young people’s behavior in borderline situations. 

In addition, it appears that there is also no consistent or solid relationship between the two biases. This may be because it does not really exist, or because there are methodological difficulties in measuring this relationship. 

In any case, the authors recommend improving the tasks focused on the study, especially, of the attention bias in adolescents; in addition to studying the role of the different cognitive processes and how they relate and interact with each other when it comes to predicting the tendency to suffer from social anxiety. 

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