Brain Imaging and Behavior

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 35–48 | Cite as

Self-referential and anxiety-relevant information processing in subclinical social anxiety: an fMRI study

  • Anna AbrahamEmail author
  • Carolin Kaufmann
  • Ronny Redlich
  • Andrea Hermann
  • Rudolf Stark
  • Stephan Stevens
  • Christiane Hermann
Original Research


The fear of negative evaluation is one of the hallmark features of social anxiety. Behavioral evidence thus far largely supports cognitive models which postulate that information processing biases in the face of socially relevant information are a key factor underlying this widespread phobia. So far only one neuroimaging study has explicitly focused on the fear of negative evaluation in social anxiety where the brain responses of social phobics were compared to healthy participants during the processing of self-referential relative to other-referential criticism, praise or neutral information. Only self-referential criticism led to stronger activations in emotion-relevant regions of the brain, such as the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortices (mPFC), in the social phobics. The objective of the current study was to determine whether these findings could be extended to subclinical social anxiety. In doing so, the specificity of this self-referential bias was also examined by including both social and non-social (physical illness-related) threat information as well as a highly health anxious control group in the experimental paradigm. The fMRI findings indicated that the processing of emotional stimuli was accompanied by activations in the amygdala and the ventral mPFC, while self-referential processing was associated with activity in regions such as the mPFC, posterior cingulate and temporal poles. Despite the validation of the paradigm, the results revealed that the previously reported behavioral and brain biases associated with social phobia could not be unequivocally extended to subclinical social anxiety. The divergence between the findings is explored in detail with reference to paradigm differences and conceptual issues.


Social anxiety Social cognition Neuroimaging Self-referential processing Emotion processing Fear of negative evaluation 



We thank scientists at the BION, particularly Dr. Bertram Walter, Dr. Ulrich Ott, Dr. Carlo Blecker, and Professor Dieter Vaitl for their support.

Supplementary material

11682_2012_9188_MOESM1_ESM.doc (102 kb)
ESM 1 Supplementary material (DOC 102 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anna Abraham
    • 1
    Email author
  • Carolin Kaufmann
    • 1
    • 2
  • Ronny Redlich
    • 1
    • 2
  • Andrea Hermann
    • 3
  • Rudolf Stark
    • 3
  • Stephan Stevens
    • 1
  • Christiane Hermann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Clinical PsychologyJustus Liebig University of GiessenGiessenGermany
  2. 2.University of MuensterMuensterGermany
  3. 3.Bender Institute of NeuroimagingJustus-Liebig-University of GiessenGiessenGermany

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