Social cognition in social anxiety: first evidence for increased empathic abilities

Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 2011;48(2):98-106.


Background: Individuals with social phobia (SP) show sensitivity and attentiveness to other peoples states of mind. Although cognitive processes in SP have been extensively studied, these individuals social cognition characteristics have never been examined before. We hypothesized that high socially anxious individuals (HSA) may exhibit elevated mentalizing and empathic abilities.

Methods: Empathy was assessed using self-rating scales in HSA individuals (n=21) and low socially anxious (LSA) individuals (n=22), based on their score on the Liebowitz social anxiety scale. A computerized task was used to assess the ability to judge first and second order affective vs. cognitive mental state attributions.

Results: HSA individuals exhibited elevated affective empathy tendencies. However, controlling for the general anxiety variable revealed that social anxiety was related to cognitive empathy measures, rather than affective empathy. In addition, compared with LSA participants, HSA participants exhibited higher accuracy levels on the affective mental state attribution conditions, but were less accurate than LSA individuals on the parallel cognitive mental state attribution conditions.

Limitations: Additional research with larger samples and clinically diagnosed individuals is required.

Conclusions: Results support the hypothesis that high socially anxious individuals may demonstrate a unique social-cognitive abilities profile with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phobic Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Social Perception*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*
  • Young Adult