Background: Social anxiety has been associated with potentiated negative affect and, more recently, with diminished positive affect. It is unclear how these alterations in negative and positive affect are represented neurally in socially anxious individuals and, further, whether they generalize to non-social stimuli. To explore this, we used a monetary incentive paradigm to explore the association between social anxiety and both the anticipation and consumption of non-social incentives. Eighty-four individuals from a longitudinal community sample underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participating in a monetary incentive delay (MID) task. The MID task consisted of alternating cues indicating the potential to win or prevent losing varying amounts of money based on the speed of the participant’s response. We examined whether self-reported levels of social anxiety, averaged across approximately 7 years of data, moderated brain activity when contrasting gain or loss cues with neutral cues during the anticipation and outcome phases of incentive processing. Whole brain analyses and analyses restricted to the ventral striatum for the anticipation phase and the medial prefrontal cortex for the outcome phase were conducted.
Results: Social anxiety did not associate with differences in hit rates or reaction times when responding to cues. Further, socially anxious individuals did not exhibit decreased ventral striatum activity during anticipation of gains or decreased MPFC activity during the outcome of gain trials, contrary to expectations based on literature indicating blunted positive affect in social anxiety. Instead, social anxiety showed positive associations with extensive regions implicated in default mode network activity (for example, precuneus, posterior cingulate cortex, and parietal lobe) during anticipation and receipt of monetary gain. Social anxiety was further linked with decreased activity in the ventral striatum during anticipation of monetary loss.
Conclusions: Socially anxious individuals may increase default mode network activity during reward processing, suggesting high self-focused attention even in relation to potentially rewarding stimuli lacking explicit social connotations. Additionally, social anxiety may relate to decreased ventral striatum reactivity when anticipating potential losses.