Objective: Socially anxious adolescents report distress during social decision-making, wherein their favorable view of peers directly conflicts with their expectation to be viewed negatively by peers; a phenomenon we refer to as "mismatch bias." The present study utilizes a novel paradigm with dynamic social stimuli to explore the correlates of mismatch biases in anxious and healthy youth.
Method: The behavioral and neural correlates of mismatch biases were assessed in healthy (N = 17) and anxious (N = 14) youth during functional MRI. Participants completed a novel task where they viewed silent videos of unknown peers. After viewing each video, participants appraised the social desirability of the peer ("How much do you think you would like them [if you met them]") or predicted how socially desirable the peer would find them ("How much do you think they would like you [if you met them]"). Each participant's mismatch bias was calculated as the difference between their appraisal of peers and their prediction of peers' appraisal of them.
Results: We found that anxious youth exhibited mismatch bias: they rated unknown peers as more desirable than they predicted peers would rate them. This effect was not present in the healthy group. Mismatch biases were associated with increased engagement of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC), a region broadly involved in flexible cognitions and behavioral selection. In addition, greater mismatch biases and vlPFC activation during mismatch biases were associated with more severe anxiety symptoms.
Conclusions: The findings highlight the importance of understanding mismatch biases to inform treatments that target distress elicited by discrepant social appraisals in anxious youth.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00018057.
Keywords: adolescence; fMRI; social anxiety; social cognition.