Cognitive Biases that Can Feed into Social Anxiety

Cognitive biases that can feed into social anxiety, e.g. confirmation bias, self-verification, negativity bias

This post is a follow-up to a conversation that Winter Dragonflies and I were having about different mental errors that can feed into social anxiety. We all have a natural set of cognitive biases that can result in mental errors, so I wanted to take a look at what some of those might be.

Cognitive biases are a way for our brains to be more efficient, but that efficiency comes at a cost of skewed appraisals of the world around us. Interpreting these as representing absolute truth can feed into social anxiety, self-doubt, and all that kind of fun stuff.

Attentional bias

The way we focus our attention affects what we perceive in the environment around us. People with anxiety tend to have an attentional bias that’s skewed in favour of noticing threat-related cues rather than reward-related cues.

Belief bias

The belief bias involves evaluating the strength of an argument based on how much you believe its conclusion rather than the strength of the arguments.

If you believe something negative about yourself, and someone gives you feedback that points at something contrary to what you believe, it won’t matter how they arrived at the conclusion they’re presenting you with, because you don’t believe where that line of thought ends up.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias means we actively seek out, believe, and focus on information that confirms the beliefs we already have.

If you go into a social situation where you expect people to think you’re a loser because you’re going to do something loserish, you will pay attention to things that confirm your loserishness and ignore anything that suggests you’re totally rocking it.

Illusion of transparency

We tend to overestimate how well people can tell what we’re thinking, and also how well we can tell what they’re thinking. So those subtle cues that make you sure they think you’re an imposter? You actually know no such thing.

Illusory truth effect

The illusory truth effect refers to our tendency to estimate things as more believable the more often we see them.

I’m making a bit of a leap here, but close enough. Neural connections are strengthened or weakened based on use. The analogy I like to use is a trail in the forest. If you don’t use it very often, you have to bushwhack your way through each time and it’s a lot of work. If you use it frequently, you’ve pretty much built a freeway through your forest. Getting extra-snug and cozy with anxious thoughts that pop up is like doing some extra bulldozing along the side of your forest freeway to have room to install some billboards that say everyone knows you’re a screw-up, so you might as well quit trying.

Negativity bias

Our caveman ancestors needed to pay attention to what the lions and tigers were doing, because of the whole getting eaten business. There was a survival advantage in paying attention to the negative. That’s hardwired into our brains, even though it’s not so necessary these days.

When you’re in a social situation, you’re naturally keeping an eye out for the lion, tiger, or person who will realize that you’re, well, you rather than the “normal” person you’re masked up to be.

Observer-expectancy effect

One of the reasons clinical trials use blinding is that if either the researcher or patient expects a certain outcome, they’ll unconsciously do things to influence that outcome. This is called the observer-expectancy effect.

If you’re going into a social situation expecting to be humiliated, your mind will do what it can to deliver.


We like to have a stable sense of self, whatever that sense of self might be. Self-verification is our tendency to seek verification from others that we are who we think we are. Even if you see yourself negatively, you want to be around people who recognize you for the loser that you think you are.

Bias blind spot

All of these cognitive biases we’ve talked about? Your mind’s natural tendency is to underestimate that bias, and assume you’re objective in your self-loserishness assessments.

Just because the mind likes to play tricks doesn’t mean we can’t call bullshit on it. Recognizing that just because something is in your head doesn’t make it accurate is somewhere to start.

Do any of these ring true for you, whether that be in regards to social anxiety or anything else?

25 thoughts on “Cognitive Biases that Can Feed into Social Anxiety”

  1. For sure. I notice all the ahole BMW drivers because I believe that they are mostly selfish, arrogant, and dangerous. But when I REALLY pay attention, it turns out that this bad behavior occurs with drivers of all kinds of cars.

    Online dating illustrates a lot of your points. Some people can shrug off the creeps and liars because they BELIEVE, no matter what evidence to the contrary, that they will find love there. Others, such as myself, get hugely discouraged from a few bad experiences and dumped the whole thing. But there WERE some nice guys; my negative biases however caused me to hyperfocus on bad behavior ~ esp when one of them would criticize me. That tapped into my self-esteem issues.

    Great post!

    1. I can get pretty judgy about people driving expensive cars, but you’re right, there are assholes dispersed equally across the spectrum.

      I gave up on online dating very quickly because the creepy ones seemed to drown out the good ones.

  2. One of my ‘labels’ is ‘social anxiety’. And (no criticism implied at all) one thing you didn’t touch upon (perhaps because it’s not relevant to this particular discussion) are those of us with social anxiety which is a result of either PTSD or trauma during our formative years. Because of the trauma our sense of self is skewed or damaged permanently. (these are observations by myself over the years). I didn’t develop the level of social anxiety that I have now until much later in life, although the seeds were there. Perhaps because of many of the biases you did touch on. I read the list and recognized a few that I do or have done, and which I’m trying to reverse. It’s tough going. Hypervigilance (from the PTSD and/or early trauma) heightens the sense of ‘danger danger’ and so the person with it has that particular bias in spades. I also noticed that last year and the enforced isolation deepened my social anxiety a great deal. I’m far more ‘touchy’ than I was two years ago, when I thought I was making a bit of progress.

    I struggle every day not to think like I’m programmed to think (i.e. that I’m a loser or whatever the label of the day is), and not to judge too hastily. Not to REACT but be proactive. Some days are better than others. I’ve been thinking the ‘old’ way for more than fifty five years and reversing it might take just as long (not that I hope I’m around to achieve that age).

    1. Trauma is so horrendously damaging in so many areas. It seem like kind of a whack-a-mole process – try to deal with one aspect and you never know what other aspect might flare up.

  3. I think at one time or another I can relate to each one of those. I am probably guilty of ruining some social situations from expecting a certain outcome.

    So my belief of being hurt by people or not being believed when I was a child, has distorted my belief in people as an adult. I expect to be hurt so I look for it and find every piece of information. I guess the same could be said about not fitting in. Some of my posts must sound really bad.

    Thank you, I now have a better understanding of how it works.

        1. A good place to start might be to reflect on difficult situations afterwards and try to influence what thinking patterns might have influenced your response, even if that means trying to pick from a list of cognitive biases, cognitive distortions, trauma-related thoughts, etc. With practice at that, it can become easier to start to recognize in the moment that you’re reacting based on an old pattern rather than what’s right in front of you.

  4. This is a brilliant topic, and I love how clearly you’ve laid these out. I really enjoyed cognitive biases as part of my psych degree, I suppose in part because we might have experience some for ourselves or seen them in action in the world, so they’re very applicable. And they do play into mental health and anxiety quite considerably in some cases, like with confirmation bias. I think sadly that one plays into things like racism, too. I like how you’ve left the bias blind spot until last, just to hammer home how actually we can often overestimate our objectivity, especially when it comes to thought we hold about ourselves. xx

  5. I’ve been watching some videos of Jordan Peterson lately. Some of his ideas seem quite reasonable, but he frames them in such a way that presents any experiences that are inconsistent with his views as being invalid. It seems like a waste of any decent ideas to present them in a way that’s going to complete alienate half the population.

  6. I think I can relate the best to this: attentional bias.

    My mind always pays attention to my to-do-list, it is hard to focus on any rewarding experience. It has been a long while since I watch a movie or drama episode.

    I only watch movie trailers or listen to songs and music. I hardly enjoy my food by spending time munching it.

    I always go through everything fast, missing some details and keep coming back to learn the same thing.

    Thanks for sharing about this!

  7. All really interesting biases to learn about, great post! I know about confirmation bias and negativity bias, but the others were all mostly new to me!

    I think another really important one to add is the Spotlight effect, where we all think that we walk around life as if there’s a Spotlight trained on us at all times. In reality though, everyone is undergoing the same effect and paying absolutely no attention to anyone else, since everyone is the main character of their own story and we’re all just supporting cast (if they’re even thinking about us at all)!

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