Self-Focused Attention in a Conversation increases Social Anxiety

Published on December 10, 2012

Your two eyes together process about two megabytes of information per second. They accomplish this by transmitting along the approximately one million nerve fibers exiting each eye to the brain. We efficiently process this enormous amount of information by prioritizing certain information for immediate process and subordinating the rest to be dealt with later--by later we mean milliseconds. We call this phenomenon Attention1.

“Attention is a mechanism that selects information of current relevance to the organism while leaving the non-selected, and thus non-attended, data to suffer from benign neglect", says Naotsugu Tsuchiya and Christof Kochttention, two of the key knowledge leaders in the area of consciousness

conversationA real-world example of attention is what happens to me at public functions. When I find myself in a conversation with another person I usually ‘see’ myself while talking as if I were the audience to the encounter. I focus my attention on a variety of things depending on the conversation. Sometimes I focus on my body language and other times I am acutely conscious of my breathing. Further, sometimes I am in a ‘zone’ and can split my awareness between my conversation with the person next to me, and --given a small enough venue--maintain a consciousness of the body language of every other person in the room.

Given the several cognitive processes that are likely happening in my brain, I think that it would be instructive to mention at least one other phenomenon--Consciousness.

Tsuchiya and Koch explain that the functions of consciousness "range from summarizing all relevant information pertaining to the current state of the organism and its environment and making this compact summary accessible to the planning stages of the brain, to detecting anomalies and errors, decision making, language, inferring the internal state of other animals, setting long-term goals, making recursive models, and rational thought."

In relation to this, the Australian Journal of Psychology published a study that examines attention and how it relates to our self-conscious feelings mentioned earlier in this article. The paper is titled "Self-focused Attention and Anxiety”2. In addition to examining the psychological mechanisms underlying my attentional habits, it also gave me an excuse to think about how my favorite topics of consciousness and attention might overlap with the subject.

The paper explains,"Self-focused attention (SFA) refers to the tendency to direct attention to closely monitoring the self rather than to features of the environment." The authors concentrate on how fear of an external negative opinion, combined with SFA contributes to social anxiety.

The researchers divided a group of first-year psychology students into a Self-Focused Attention (SFA) group  and an Externally-Focused Attention (EFA) group. Students were engaged in an approximately four-minute conversation with a researcher who spoke in a friendly and non-judgmental manner. By manipulating the attention of the students, the researchers were able to gauge whether it made them more or less anxious during an encounter with another person. This was accomplished by having a researcher ask the SFA group about their thought on exercise and how it affected their body.

The elegantly designed part of this experiment, I think, was how the researchers devised a method to manipulate the attention of the EFA subjects away from themselves in a way that would maintain the integrity of the experiment. The interviewer still asked questions about exercise, but with the EFA subjects, she asked how they thought exercise might affect an Olympic athlete’s body. In this way, the study succeeded where many other studies had not.

First, they manipulated the students' attention in a way that maintained ecological validity. In other words, other studies had not been able to manipulate attention between the SFA and EFA subjects in a way that mimicked human conversation in both. Second, the manipulation of the attention did not in itself cause an expectation of negative review by the subjects--another problem of previous studies.

The paper did report a few issues that might have affected the outcome, such as sample size and an issue with the methodology. I think however, that we can feel comfortable with their conclusion that "self-focus that does not have an explicitly evaluative dimension does not elicit social anxiety. " Another outcome was the finding that social anxiety was not as high in those subjects familiar with the conversation topic.

Whether you are an SFA or EFA, we would like to read your comments about this story. Drop us a line. Until next time…KEEP THINKING!


1 Naotsugu Tsuchiya and Christof Koch (2008), Scholarpedia, 3(5):4173. doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.4173

2 Jakymin Anna K., Harria, Lynne M. “Self-focused attention and social anxiety” Australian Journal of Psychology 2012; 64: 61–67 doi:10.1111/j.1742-9536.2011.00027.x

Category(s):Anxiety, Self-Confidence

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”

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