Social Anxiety Disorder and Negative Bias

Negative Bias Can Have Long-Lasting Effects on Self-Esteem

Depressed young girl
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If you have social anxiety disorder (SAD), the prospect of entering a party or crowded room on your own can be terrifying. When you work up the courage to finally enter, what faces do you notice? Do you see a bunch of people smiling or do you focus on the people who are frowning? This scenario has been the focus of many studies on social anxiety disorder and thought biases that come into play.

Research has shown that people with SAD typically focus on the people who look displeased or are frowning.

This is consistent with studies that show the people those with SAD focus primarily on the negative and ignore or do not notice the positive; this is a phenomenon known as negative bias. Additionally, people with SAD over-focus on their own social behaviors and either minimize the mistakes of others or exaggerate the social skills of other people. If you experience SAD, you may know firsthand that this negative bias can cause you a great deal of distress and discomfort. 

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Over 15 million American adults have been diagnosed with SAD. It is an anxiety disorder that causes you to feel constantly judged or ridiculed by others, particularly in social situations. It can become so severe that it inhibits your daily life, decreasing your social engagements and even harming your performance at work. 

How Does Negative Bias Affect Social Anxiety Disorder?

If you experience SAD, you may expect the worst in yourself.

You often feel that others are mocking you and feel embarrassed, humiliated or rejected. A slight mistake or social awkwardness may linger in your mind while others have long forgotten about it. You likely think that others are more natural socially and are better conversationalists, when it fact they may actually be mediocre in comparison to you.

But due to negative bias, your social anxiety is continually emphasized because of your distorted thinking and perceptions. 

How Can I Stop Negative Bias?

The most difficult aspect of negative bias is that it is automatic and unconscious, so it is more difficult to manage. To manage your subconscious thoughts and SAD, it is recommended that you visit a therapist specializing in anxiety disorders. Through therapy, you will learn strategies that help handle your symptoms and counter negative bias. 

One of the techniques used in fighting negative bias is "thought stopping". This is a process where you are mindful of your thoughts. When you recognize negativity entering your mind, you forcibly stop your line of thinking through asking yourself key questions. 

For example, one technique that may work for you is using "so what?" in response to automatic negative thoughts. If you walk into a party and notice people are frowning, instead of allowing yourself to reflect on how people may not want you there, ask yourself, "so what?" So what if they are frowning? So what if they aren't having a good time? That is their concern and yours is on your own enjoyment. This can stop negative bias in its tracks and allow you to refocus your thinking.


While negative bias is harmful to those with SAD, it can be conquered through therapy, treatment, and continual practice. 


Miloff, A., Savva, A., Carlbring, P. "Cognitive Bias Measurement and Social Anxiety Disorder: Correlating Self-Reported Data and Attentional Bias". Internet Interventions, 2015. 

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