Working Memory Capacity in Generalized Social Phobia

Nader Amir and Jessica Bomyea


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According to DSM-5TM (2013), Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) is a ”Marked fear of one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.” Also they fear they will be judged negatively which might result being humiliated or face rejection to one (Comer, 2010). According to the report on working memory capacity the availability of cognitive resources depend on social cues and these cognitive abilities have a significant impact on people with social phobia. However, very few studies have been conducted so far regarding working memory and social phobia (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

It has been found in many studies that people suffering from social anxiety disorder has maladaptive cognitive assumptions which presumably results of worsening the symptoms associated with this disorder. This cognitive process can be without conscious effort and the availability of the cognitive resources can prevent the illogical thought processes which might arise if the mental resources are low. These executive control processes is referred as processes that are related to cognitive functions (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011). It has been also found that people with social anxiety disorder has problems with attention thus it can hurt the performance of cognitive tasks. This has been proven in verbal reasoning, spatial reasoning and many other studies which were done on the purpose of proving that anxiety has an impact on the central processes. This is due to the fact that the anxious person has to focus on many other tasks rather than the main purpose and waste its mental resources without being effectively used. For instance, as the client has social phobia will evaluate oneself negatively on something that was stored on autobiographic memory. This wasting of cognitive resources in perceiving oneself in negative situations like this can affect the performance of working memory of an anxious person compared to a non-anxious person thus doing poor on tasks that requires cognition. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

This research was done in order to assess the impact on working memory capacity performance with neutral and social threat stimuli, among clients who have been clinically labeled with generalized social phobia. This was the first study done to compare WMC with neutral and threat stimuli on anxious individuals and these individuals use bottom-up information processing which enables them to be caught up in threat related stimuli. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

Therefore, they proposed the hypothesis as;

Ho: individuals with generalized social phobia show a greater WMC performance when exposed to a threat related stimuli than a neutral stimuli.

H1: individuals who are non-anxious shows a greater WMC performance when exposed to a neutral stimuli than a threat related stimuli



There were 36 individuals in experimental group and 35 in the control group. In the experimental group patients are chosen with regard to the criteria mentioned in Diagnostic Statistical Manual ( DSM-IV) which includes taking a Structured Clinical Interview(SCID) as well as getting a score above 60 on Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale. Those who met the criterion were also in an ongoing treatment by the Center for Understanding and Treating Anxiety at San Diego state university. Among the 36 interviews which was videotaped, 20% percent was randomly rated by an independent clinician and got an interrater score of k=0.89 which increases the reliability of the selection procedure. As for the control group with non- anxious 35 individuals selected from the community had to undergo SCID screening aided by a clinic staff to check whether they met any past or present criteria’s of the disorder. Moreover they had to have a score that didn’t exceed beyond 29 on self-report version of LSIS. In this experiment all participants $20 for their collaboration. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

Materials and Procedure

This experiment was conducted empirically and the data was collected for a quantitative study although it was done by means of electronic media.

This assessment was done by a computer based OSPAN (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011). In which Operations Span paradigm (OSPAN) the members are supposed to recall words in a succession at the same time performing simple math problems. While keeping each participant in about a distance of 30cm from the computer screen, a fixation (+) at the center was shown for 500ms and then shows a blank screen for 500ms and finally shows a solved mathematics problem preceded by a word for 800ms.the math equation can be for example 2+3=4, which are researched to be used in WMC tasks. Once the decision is made the participant presses the right key on the mouse and then continues this same procedure for 2-6 times. Once this is done for2- 6 times the participants has to recall the order of the words which are shown on a screen and which were shown during the process. Words like “chair” which is neutral and “stupid” which is socially threatening were shows to study the effect of neutral and threat words on WMC span. Along with the words extra words are used as distractions on the screen during the 20 trials each participant finished. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

Before the start of the experiment each participant was allowed to sign a consent form and do a LSAS( by the anxious) and LSAS-SR(by the non-anxious) tests with similar psychometric value. The participants were given a trial round before the real experiment and advised to remember the words and do as fast as possible while doing the math problems at the same time. The words used during the practice rounds were not included in the experimental sessions as part of accuracy. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).


Self-Report Measures

At the end of the 20 sessions the group with generalized social phobia was reduced to 32 participants with the elimination of 3 participants due to lack of math accuracy below 85% and one participant having a math solving capacity three times higher than the mean standard deviation. Also the non-anxious group was reduced to 30 after elimination of 5 due to low math scores. However, the groups didn’t differ that much in age and education. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

Math Reaction Times

In this study participants were removed due to low math performance or too high performance which is consistent with other studies done earlier. The reaction times was calculated as a median value which shows that bot the generalized anxiety group and non-anxious group had close results when solving problems with social threat, t(60)=1.10,p=.28 or neutral words, t=(60)=1.60,p=.11. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

Working Memory Span Scores

WMC scores were calculated by the partial-credit load scoring where each participant gets one point for a word in its correct order in the list. The figure 1 below shows the comparison of means and standard error bars in both groups. The results obtained are consistent with the results from prior research. The results were also put into mixed design analysis of ANOVA with anxious, non-anxious, social threat and neutral as 2?2 designs. This test showed the interaction among the Group and Word type was significant. To add more value t tests was done which showed the worst WMC in GSP and NAC when neutral words are compared. Comparing non-anxious with two word types it doesn’t show much difference unlike the generalized social phobia group who recalled threat words by, t(31) = 2.30, p=.028. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

Figure 1. Working memory capacity scores for generalized social phobia(GSP) and non-anxious control(NAC) groups.


Results prove that non-anxious group did great when remembering neutral information. Also the generalized social phobia group was better at remembering threat related than neutral stimuli. This support the idea that anxious people are worse at recalling neutral information and thus support that their inability to maintain attention on one task leads to wasting of cognitive resources thus, doing bad at tasks. (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).


This study itself has its own limitations including the idea the participants in GSP were more depressed than anxious, this hinders the understanding of anxiety on the results. This may be why they GSP group did much better on recalling social threats. Furthermore, they are unable to compare people with different levels of anxiety with the type of stimulus. The study also was not able to represent an entire population of people suffering generalized social phobia as the sample size is not representative plus the elimination of members from each group reduced its population size. . (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011).

Suggestion for future research

In future they could compare patients suffering from various stages of generalized social phobia to explain the extent of anxious nature can impact on the working memory performance (Amir, & Bomyea, 2011). Also they could select a sample that represents the population and has equal number of participants in both groups to improve accuracy. Moreover, in this study 72% of GSP and 50% NAC group represent female population which makes it unable to compare among the genders. So if the experiments can be conducted on genders we could understand how this anxious nature can have an impact on women and men that are equivalent in severity of the disorder to understand how powerful cognitive resources in both genders. This can also enable to assess the amount of damage that generalized social phobia can act on the cognitive resources in both genders WMC when a stimulus is a neutral one. This may in turn help to give proper attention to the people suffering from generalized social phobia and may recover easier with proper care for the individuals. Moreover, they could conduct experiment again with the DSM-5 criteria since it’s a recent version compared to DSM-IV text revised edition.


Amir, N., & Bomyea, J. (2011). Working memory capacity in generalized social phobia.Journal Of Abnormal Psychology,120(2), 504-509. doi:10.1037/a0022849

APA (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition; DSM-5).

Comer, R. J. (2010). Abnormal Psychology (7th Edition). New York: Worth Publishers.

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