Self-Focused Attention and Negative Affect: A Meta-Analysis
University of Illinois at Chicago
This meta-analysis synthesized 226 effect sizes reflecting the relation between self-focused attention and
negative affect (depression, anxiety, negative mood). The results demonstrate the multifaceted nature of
self-focused attention and elucidate major controversies in the field. Overall, self-focus was associated
with negative affect. Several moderators qualified this relationship. Self-focus and negative affect were
more strongly related in clinical and female-dominated samples. Rumination yielded stronger effect sizes
than nonruminative self-focus. Self-focus on positive self-aspects and following a positive event were
related to lower negative affect. Most important, an interaction between foci of self-attention and form
of negative affect was found: Private self-focus was more strongly associated with depression and
generalized anxiety, whereas public self-focus was more strongly associated with social anxiety.
Cognitive biases have been discussed extensively as contribut-
ing to emotional disorders. Depressed and anxious individuals
show significant memory impairments and biases, judgmental
biases, and attentional biases (for a review, see Mineka, Rafaeli-
Mor, & Yovel, in press). Such biases may serve as antecedents,
concomitants, and consequences of emotional disorders (cf. Bar-
nett & Gotlib, 1988). For example, anxious and depressed indi-
viduals attend selectively to negative information (Mathews &
MacLeod, 1994). In addition, in contrast to nondepressed individ-
uals, depressed individuals recall more negative stimuli than pos-
itive stimuli (Burt, Zembar, & Niederehe, 1995; Williams,
Mathews, & McLeod, 1996). Furthermore, mood-disordered indi-
viduals demonstrate a variety of judgmental biases; the most
notable is their tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative
events (MacLeod & Byrne, 1996).
Self-focused attention (SFA) is one cognitive bias that has been
strongly implicated in the experience of chronic negative affect
(NA). SFA has been defined as “an awareness of self-referent,
internally generated information that stands in contrast to an
awareness of externally generated information derived through
sensory receptors” (Ingram, 1990b, p. 156). Over the past 2 de-
cades, the relationship between emotional distress, both chronic
and acute on the one hand and chronic and temporary states of
self-focus on the other, has garnered much discussion, controversy,
and empirical research. Yet, unlike other cognitive factors in
emotional disorders mentioned earlier, the wealth of research in
SFA has not been reviewed systematically. Recently, Fejfar and
Hoyle (2000) reviewed the relationship between SFA and NA and
attributions of responsibility to the self. However, their review was
not comprehensive and examined only private self-focus. Apart
from this recent contribution, the most comprehensive review to
date was qualitative and was conducted more than 11 years ago
(Ingram, 1990b). Since the time of Ingram’s review, the number of
studies available on the topic has at least doubled and their focus
has changed. In addition, recent studies have examined a wider
range of populations and forms of NA that go beyond those
reviewed in 1990.
The purpose of the present meta-analysis is to organize the
wealth of evidence in this area and to provide a systematic and
quantitative analysis of the conditions and contexts governing the
relationship of SFA and NA. We attempt not only to review and
summarize existing knowledge but also to provide a conceptual
organization of this knowledge. Specifically, this meta-analysis
will speak to two fundamental theoretical issues.
Fundamental Issues in the Study of SFA and NA
One fundamental issue in this field is whether self-focus is a
single psychological construct. If attention to the self is a broad
traitlike construct that characterizes people’s general attention-
allocation tendencies, we would expect great consistency in self-
focus across situations and contexts. In addition, if self-focus is a
unitary construct, we would expect it to have a consistent relation-
ship with NA. On the other hand, if self-focus is conceptualized as
a dynamic information processing operation, we would expect
self-focus to vary significantly across situations and contexts,
Nilly Mor, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago;
Jennifer Winquist, Department of Psychology, Valparaiso University.
Parts of this research were presented at the June 1999 meeting of the
American Psychological Society in Denver, Colorado, and at the Novem-
ber 1999 annual meeting of the Society for Research on Psychopathology
in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. We extend special appreciation to Daniel
Cervone and Eshkol Rafaeli for their insightful and constructive comments
throughout the preparation of this article. We also thank Alice Eagly for her
invaluable advice on meta-analytical methodology and Gershon Berkson,
Jody Esper, Stanley Hughes, Daniel Moran, and Heather Orom for their
helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. Finally, we thank
authors who sent us requested data and statistical information.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nilly
Mor, who is now at the Department of Psychology, University of Mary-
land, College Park, Maryland 20742, or to Jennifer Winquist, Department
of Psychology, Valparaiso University, Dickmeyer Hall, Valparaiso, Indi-
ana 46383. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
2002, Vol. 128, No. 4, 638–662
Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
0033-2909/02/$5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.128.4.638
different self-foci to operate differently, and variability in self-
focus’s relationship to affect. Consistent with views (e.g., Caprara
& Cervone, 2000; Kagan, 1998) that contemporary personality
constructs are often too broad and contain qualitatively distinct
phenomena, the construct of SFA seems to have suffered from lack
of a clear delineation of its various facets. It is often described as
a general tendency to be self-reflective (e.g., Carver & Scheier,
2000), and conclusions regarding general self-focus tendencies are
often drawn from findings pertaining to a specific form or context
of self-focus. Although it is possible that this seemingly unitary
nature of the construct of SFA is a by-product of its complexity
and of the vast number of studies examining it, it is still the case
that the general picture being portrayed is murky. Despite this
general oversight, several contextual and situation-specific factors
have been proposed to distinguish between different forms of SFA
(e.g., J. Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 1986; Wood & Dodgson,
1996). This meta-analysis addresses this fundamental issue
through the examination of the various facets or manifestations of
self-focus as well as the effect of a variety of contextual and
population factors on the relationship between self-focus and NA.
A second fundamental issue addressed in this analysis is the
specificity of the relation between SFA and affective experience.
Does self-focus relate to NA in general or only to specific syn-
dromes or disorders? This question was at the center of a pivotal
debate in this field in the 1990s. Some have argued that self-focus
is a general factor in psychopathology (Ingram, 1990b), whereas
others argued that it relates to depression more so than to other
pathological conditions (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Hamilton, &
Nix, 1991). Although this debate seems to have abated recently,
given the proliferation in the past decade of research that examined
the relationship between self-focus and various forms of NA, it
seems important to examine the specificity question in this
A systematic quantitative analysis of the field is needed to
provide answers to these fundamental questions. We return to
these questions, and present several other meta-analytic hypothe-
ses, following a historical overview of the theoretical conceptions
that have guided research in this area.
Theories and Paradigms in the Study of SFA and Affect
Overview of Relevant Theories
The concept of self-focus was introduced by Duval and Wick-
lund (1972) as part of a model relating self-regulation and affect.
According to their model, attention focused on the self leads to a
self-evaluative process in which an individual’s current state in a
particular self-relevant domain is compared with his or her stan-
dard in that domain. Positive affect is experienced if the current
standing surpasses the standard, whereas NA is experienced if the
current standing falls short of the standard. According to Duval
and Wicklund, the experience of NA leads to attempts either to
decrease the discrepancy or to avoid self-focus.
Building on Duval and Wicklund’s (1972) theory, Carver and
Scheier (e.g., 1986, 1990, 1998) suggested that self-focus plays a
role in a self-regulatory cycle that assists individuals in the pursuit
of goals. In this self-regulatory process, individuals assess the
discrepancy between their current self and a salient standard and
engage in discrepancy-reducing behaviors when a negative dis-
crepancy is detected. If the current self matches the desired stan-
dard, the individual terminates the regulatory process. If, on the
other hand, the current self falls short of the standard, the individ-
ual enters a cycle of behaviors and evaluations that lasts until the
self matches the standard or until the individual determines that a
match is impossible. NA, according to Carver and Scheier, is
experienced as a result of individuals’ judgment that the likelihood
of attaining the standard is low. In a later revision of their model,
Carver and Scheier (1998; Carver, Lawrence, & Scheier, 1996,
1999) proposed that individuals assess not only the discrepancy
between their current and desired selves but also the rate of their
progress toward reducing this discrepancy. Thus, according to this
revised model, NA results from too slow progress toward one’s
goals rather than from the discrepancy itself.
Drawing from Duval and Wicklund’s (1972) model and on
Carver and Scheier’s (1981) early model, Pyszczynski and Green-
berg (1987) described a profile of individuals with a depressive
self-focusing style. They posited that depression occurs when one
is unable or unwilling to exit the self-regulatory cycle and is
“stuck” in trying to reduce an irreducible discrepancy. Individuals
stuck in this cycle often develop a depressive self-focusing style;
they focus on their self-aspects following negative events but
avoid such focus following positive events. A depressive self-
focusing style intensifies NA and leads to increased salience of
negative aspects of the self. This increased salience, in turn, leads
to an increase in internal attributions, self-criticism, performance
deficits, and other components of depression. Although they main-
tained that self-focus is primarily related to depression, Pyszczyn-
ski, Hamilton, Greenberg, and Becker (1991) indicated that self-
focus can also be related to the experience of anxiety when one
focuses on a potential feared loss as opposed to an already existing
Several theorists have addressed the role of rumination in main-
taining depression. Early contributions emphasizing cognitive fac-
tors in the development and maintenance of depression argued that
depressed individuals tend to engage in repetitive and persistent
negative automatic thinking, much of which focuses on the self
(e.g., Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979; Teasdale, 1983). Sub-
sequently, and more broadly, rumination was defined as “a class of
conscious thoughts that revolve around a common instrumental
theme and that recur in the absence of immediate environmental
demands requiring the thought” (L. L. Martin & Tesser, 1996, p.
7) and as “a manifestation of people’s tendency to persist in
goal-directed action until they have either attained their goal or
given up the desire for it” (L. L. Martin & Tesser, 1996, p. 11).
Nolen-Hoeksema and colleagues (e.g., Lyubomirsky & Nolen-
Hoeksema, 1995; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991; Nolen-Hoeksema &
Morrow, 1993) have specifically examined the role of rumination
in the increase or maintenance of depressed mood in dysphoric and
clinically depressed individuals, and defined ruminative responses
as “behaviors or thoughts that focus an individual’s attention on
his or her depressed mood, and [on] the possible causes and
consequences of that mood” (Nolen-Hoeksema, Morrow, &
Fredrickson, 1993, p. 20). According to Nolen-Hoeksema and her
colleagues, what characterizes rumination and differentiates it
from negative automatic thoughts is it being a style of thought
rather than its negative content. It is evident from these various
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
conceptualizations of rumination that it is a unique form of self-
focus (and see also Hamilton & Ingram, 2001, for a review of
theoretical perspectives relating rumination and distress). Because
the majority of studies that relate rumination to NA used Nolen-
Hoeksema’s definition of rumination, we relied on this definition
of rumination in this meta-analysis.
Nolen-Hoeksema’s response style theory addresses several aspects
in the relationship between ruminative self-focus and NA. First,
according to the theory (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987, 1991), ruminative
responses prolong depressive states. This is because they enhance the
effects of the negative mood on cognitive processes and prevent the
individual from taking action and coping with the mood or with its
causes in a problem-solving manner. Second, the theory explains
gender differences in the prevalence of depression by women’s higher
tendency to ruminate (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987). Finally, the theory
suggests that SFA does not necessarily promote depression in non-
and on their negative personal attributes.
In his review on self-focus and psychopathology, Ingram
(1990b) concluded that SFA contributes to many psychopatholog-
ical conditions including depression, anxiety, substance abuse,
schizophrenia, and psychopathy. In explaining the existence of this
broad relation to psychopathology in general, Ingram coined the
term self-absorption, which he described as the “dysfunctional
quality of maladaptive self-focused attention” (p. 169). Self-
absorption is an excessive, sustained, and inflexible attention to
internal states. Ingram stated that a chronic SFA style is not
necessarily dysfunctional. What renders some self-focus dysfunc-
tional is inflexibility, or an inability to shift to an external focus of
attention when the situation warrants. The three features of self-
absorption mentioned above (i.e., being excessive, sustained, and
inflexible) are common to many disorders. However, according to
Ingram, specific kinds of self-relevant information are disorder
specific and reflect the particular psychopathological schemata of
the various disorders. For instance, the SFA of an individual with
an eating disorder will make salient information related to body
image and physical appearance. Ingram’s (1990b) conclusions
regarding the role of self-focus in psychopathology were criticized
by Pyszczynski, Greenberg, et al. (1991), who maintained that
Ingram overestimated the extent of the relationship between self-
focus and various pathological conditions, other than depression
(see Ingram, 1991, for a response).
Earlier, we presented two fundamental issues that are addressed
in this meta-analysis; one is whether self-focus is a single psycho-
logical construct and the other is whether the relationship between
SFA and NA is general or specific. Ingram (1990b) suggested that
the relation between increased SFA and a variety of psychopathol-
ogy conditions poses a “conceptual dilemma.” The essence of this
dilemma, according to Ingram, is that if SFA characterizes a
multitude of psychological disorders, its value as an explanatory
mechanism in pathology is greatly reduced. However, this con-
ceptual dilemma would cease to exist if self-focus were not con-
strued as a single construct but instead as an umbrella term for a
number of constructs or variants of the same construct, such that
different self-foci explain different disorders.
Ingram’s (1990b) meta-construct model of self-absorption pro-
vides a variant of a multifaceted approach to self-focus. According
to this model, whereas the process of self-absorption is common to
many disorders, specific self-focused schemata or content charac-
terize the different disorders. In other words, Ingram presented
both unique and shared aspects in particular kinds of self-focused
cognitions. Although the self-absorption model describes general
parameters for self-focus, it does not specify various manifesta-
tions of self-focus and contextual impact on SFA. Pyszczynski,
Greenberg, et al.’s (1991) conceptualization of SFA is consistent
with the notion of a multifaceted, contextually based process.
Their model of the depressive self-focusing style assumes that
self-focus of depressed and nondepressed people differs in context
and valence and that depression is uniquely related to self-focus.
Carver and Scheier (1998) described a divergence of effects of
self-focus, such that only under some circumstances will self-focus
be associated with NA and impaired functioning. They argued that
“these outcomes occur when self-focus joins with doubt, leading to
an impulse to disengage which is not given full expression” (p.
188). Though their model does not directly address the specificity
question, their conceptualization of self-focus as a contextually
determined process seems to imply a complex set of relations
between self-focus and various NA manifestations rather than a
specific relationship with just depression or anxiety.
Overview of Extant Research Paradigms
The relationship between SFA and emotional disorders has been
examined using a variety of methodologies and measurement
strategies. Researchers have typically used two broad paradigms.
In the first paradigm, SFA is examined in its chronic and traitlike
form (usually referred to as self-consciousness), and either chronic
negative affectivity or a mood disorder is examined (e.g., Smith &
Greenberg, 1981). This paradigm often involves a correlational
design, in which selected or unselected groups are examined to
determine the association between SFA and NA, or a quasi-
experimental design, in which groups with a priori differences in
their level of NA (e.g., depressed and nondepressed) are compared
on chronic self-focus tendencies. In the second paradigm, the
relationship between temporary self-focus and NA is examined,
typically manipulating either affect or SFA and examining their
effect on each other (e.g., Carr, Teasdale, & Broadbent, 1991;
Salovey, 1992). This paradigm involves an experimental design
and thus allows for causal examination of the relationship between
SFA and NA.
Theoretical Analysis and Moderator Variables
Understanding the relationship between self-focus and NA re-
quires considering several variables that may moderate this rela-
tionship. As we noted earlier, identifying these moderators and
mapping their effects is one of the primary aims of this meta-
analysis. As an initial step, we classified the various moderators
into theoretically meaningful groups and identified moderator vari-
ables that fall in the following groups: population characteristics,
self-focus characteristics, NA characteristics, contextual factors,
and measurement-related factors. In this section, we discuss each
of these categories and how it was coded in this meta-analysis.
Characteristics of the Population Studied
Does self-focus exert the same effect on affect in all people?
There are reasons to believe that the relationship between SFA and
MOR AND WINQUIST
NA is stronger for women than it is for men. This is because
women tend to engage in more maladaptive self-focus, such as
rumination (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987, 1991). In addition, the higher
prevalence of depression among women (American Psychiatric
Association, 1994) and the tendency of depressed people to focus
on negative information (Beck, 1967) make it likely that there will
be a stronger relationship between NA and (negative) self-focus
among women than among men. Because relatively few studies
examine women only or men only in a way that would allow a
direct comparison of the magnitude of the effect sizes associated
with the sex of participants, we chose to use the percentage of
females in the samples for assessing the differential strength of the
relationship between self-focus and NA for men and women. Thus,
in this meta-analysis we coded the percentage of female partici-
pants in each study and predicted larger effect sizes as the per-
centage of female participants in the sample increased.
Another population-related question is whether SFA is more
strongly associated with NA among people who are predisposed to
experience chronic NA or those who already experience NA than
among people who do not possess these tendencies. Pyszczynski
and Greenberg (1987) suggested that experiencing loss predis-
poses one to develop a depressive self-focusing style in which one
focuses on the self after negative events and avoids self-focus after
positive events. Thus, according to Pyszczynski and Greenberg,
the uniquely depressive self-focusing style strengthens the rela-
tionship between self-focus and depression for people who are
already depressed or have experienced a loss of a source of esteem.
Nolen-Hoeksema (1987, 1991) reached similar conclusions,
namely that people who experience a dysphoric state and engage in
ruminative self-focus become depressed. In contrast, she found
that among people who were not experiencing dysphoria, rumina-
tion did not lead to negative thoughts and affect (Nolen-Hoeksema,
1991). Making these predictions, we coded whether studies exam-
ined clinical, subclinical (depressed or anxious individuals), or
nonclinical populations. We expected to find a stronger relation-
ship between self-focus and NA in clinical populations compared
to nonclinical populations.
Finally, the relation between SFA and NA may vary with age.
Through the course of development, individuals’ self-schemata
become more elaborate and complex (for reviews, see Damon &
Hart, 1988; Harter, 1999). In addition, children’s self-evaluations
are known to be positively inflated (Ruble, Eisenberg, & Higgins,
1994). On the basis of these findings, one can assume it is likely
that when children engage in self-focus they attend mostly to
positive self-aspects and do not experience as much NA as adults
do. Therefore, we predicted larger effect sizes for studies that
examined the relationship between SFA and NA among adults and
adolescents as compared with those that examined the relationship
Characteristics of Self-Focus
Current research on the nature of attention indicates that it is
carried out by a network of interrelated anatomical areas in the
brain, jointly characterized by the dimensions of duration, inten-
sity, selection, and automaticity (e.g., Styles, 1997). It may be
important to distinguish between states of self-focus that are of
different duration, as well as to differentiate between states of
self-focus that represent selection of differing content focus (e.g.,
involve different valence or involve dwelling on the self as an
agent as opposed to an object evaluated by the social world).
Variations in self-focus may represent divergent attentional pro-
cesses (e.g., sustained vs. short-term) as well as various contents or
self-aspects and may relate differently to NA. In this meta-analysis
we compared several variants of SFA that may represent different
attentional processes and content areas. Although we refer to these
variants as different “types” of self-focus, it is important to note
that in discussing self-focus types, we do not imply different
attentional systems with different biological or anatomical under-
pinnings but rather different aspects of the self that one can attend
One example of a subtype of self-focus is rumination. Rumina-
tive self-focus differs from other types of self-focus in both pro-
cess and content. It is repetitive and unproductive and is thought to
interfere with active problem-focused coping. In addition, rumi-
native thoughts focus on one’s mood and most often on one’s
negative mood. Thus, both content and process characteristics of
ruminative self-focus lead us to predict that rumination would be
more strongly associated with NA than would other types of
self-focus. To explore this prediction, we coded whether studies
examined ruminative self-focus.
Another distinction frequently made among types of self-focus
is between private and public self-focus (Fenigstein, Scheier, &
Buss, 1975). Private self-focus “reflects private, autonomous, ego-
centric goals. These are goals that did not necessarily require one
to consider others’ reactions to what one is doing” (Carver &
Scheier, 1987, p. 527). Public self-focus
pertains to aspects of behavior in which the needs, desires, or reac-
tions of others are acknowledged and taken into account. These goals
are colored by a desire for social consensus or by a desire to consider
the impact that an action may have on others’ impressions of oneself.
(Carver & Scheier, 1987, p. 527)
Although this distinction has been used primarily in reference to
the trait form of self-focus—self-consciousness—it can distinguish
among temporary states of self-focus as well. In fact, the most
widely used measure of self-consciousness is composed of private
and public self-consciousness subscales (Self-Consciousness Scale
[SCS]; Fenigstein et al., 1975). However, the usefulness of this
distinction has been debated. Some (e.g., Wicklund & Gollwitzer,
1987) have maintained that the distinction between these two
subtypes is spurious and atheoretical. Others (e.g., Carver &
Scheier, 1987) have maintained that the distinction is valid, claim-
ing that the two subtypes represent different self-regulatory pro-
cesses—one in which individuals evaluate their actions without
reference to others and another in which individuals evaluate their
actions while taking into account the social context. Findings of
different behavioral sequalae for private and public self-focus (cf.
Fenigstein, 1979; Froming & Carver, 1981; Froming, Walker, &
Lopyan, 1982) provide partial support for the distinction among
these subtypes. To further examine the separability of these two
putative subtypes of SFA, we coded the studies for private and
Finally, focus on positive versus negative aspects of the self may
represent two separate types of self-focus, each of which may
relate differently to affective experience. Focusing on one’s neg-
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
ative self-aspects can be assumed to relate to NA, whereas focus-
ing on positive aspects of the self can be assumed to have an
opposite effect. This idea is in line with the process of compen-
sation delineated by Wood and Dodgson (1996). Compensation is
a process whereby individuals focus on positive aspects of their
lives after experiencing a negative event (e.g., a failure). It has
been associated with higher self-esteem and better coping
(Baumeister, 1982). When possible, we coded studies for the
valence of self-focus assessed.
The Context for Self-Focus
The theories presented earlier suggest that SFA is often a
maladaptive response that is associated with negative mental
health consequences. However, each of these theories suggests
specific contexts and conditions under which SFA may not be
maladaptive. Carver and Scheier (1981, 1990; see also Carver,
1996a, 1996b) and Duval and Wicklund (1972) suggested that
SFA is essential for a self-regulatory process to take place. Ac-
cording to these models, SFA is maladaptive only when one
detects a negative discrepancy between the current self and a
relevant standard and is unable to minimize this discrepancy. One
context in which this discrepancy is particularly salient is the
experience of negative life events such as failures and losses. It is
likely that self-focus relates positively to NA when it follows
negative events but not when it follows positive events. In a similar
vein, Pyszczynski and Greenberg (1987) contended that over time,
depressed individuals engage in self-focus after negative events
but not after positive events, whereas nondepressed individuals
engage in self-focus after positive events but not after negative
events. Stated differently, their theory suggests a positive relation-
ship between self-focus and NA after negative events but not after
positive ones. Thus, in this meta-analysis we coded studies for
contextual factors such as positive and negative events.
The Specificity of the Relationship Between
Self-Focus and NA
One of the major debates in this field involves the specificity of
the relationship between SFA and psychopathology. As mentioned
earlier, Ingram (1990b) proposed that SFA is a general factor in
psychopathology. Pyszczynski, Greenberg, et al. (1991), on the
other hand, questioned the ubiquity of self-focus in psychological
disorders. In this analysis, we chose to focus on NA and disorders
to which NA is central. Thus, our analysis can only afford a partial
test of this question.
Generally speaking, there seems to be a consensus regarding the
existence of a strong relationship between self-focus and depres-
sion (e.g., Ingram, 1990b; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991; Pyszczynski &
Greenberg, 1987). As for anxiety, it has been suggested that
threatening situations lead to self-focus and that individuals’ per-
ceptions that they cannot cope with such situations lead to avoid-
ance behavior and to further anxiety (e.g., Carver & Blaney, 1977;
Carver, Blaney, & Scheier, 1979; Filipp, Klauer, & Ferring, 1993;
Wells, 1985; Wells, 1991). However, research evidence for the
relationship between self-focus and anxiety has not been very
promising: Relatively few studies examined this relationship, and
the existing findings have been mixed (see Ingram, 1990b, Pysz-
czynski, Greenberg, et al., 1991). In examining NA, we addressed
the specificity question by distinguishing among the experiences
of temporary negative mood, depressive symptoms, and anxiety
Several anxiety conditions may be associated with SFA. These
include social anxiety (Woody, 1996), panic disorder (Borden,
Lowenbraun, Wolff, & Jones, 1993), generalized anxiety disorder
(Wells, 1985), and test anxiety (Deffenbacher, 1978). In addition
to comparing overall anxiety with depression and temporary mood
states, we also examined differences between these various anxiety
A Model of Self-Focus Specificity
As mentioned earlier, in this meta-analytic review we examine
the specificity question and attempt to provide insight into the
debate regarding the generality of the relationship between SFA
and various negative affective states. Specifically, we explore
whether attention to public and private aspects of the self is
differentially related to anxiety and depression. Differential asso-
ciation patterns of private and public self-focus with anxiety and
depression are in line with Higgins’s self-discrepancy theory (e.g.,
Higgins, 1987, 1999), which relates discrepancies among various
self-perceptions and NA. According to this theory, a salient dis-
crepancy between the ideal self (i.e., what one would ideally want
to be) and the actual self is associated with depression, whereas a
salient discrepancy between the ought self (i.e., what one feels he
or she should or ought to be) and the actual self is associated with
anxiety. Although private self-focus and the ideal-self guide do not
refer to identical psychological constructs, they both refer to self-
aspects that do not involve other people. Similarly, public self-
focus and the ought-self guide both refer to self-aspects in which
others are taken into account. In this meta-analysis we examine the
interactive effect of type of self-focus (private and public) and type
of NA. Specifically, we examine whether attending to one’s goals,
thoughts, and feelings (i.e., private SFA) is associated with de-
pression and whether attending to public aspects of the self or to
the impression one makes on others (i.e., public SFA) is associated
Direction of Causality
A central question in the study of attentional processes and
affect is whether self-focus contributes to the experience of NA,
NA predisposes people to engage in self-focus, or both. The
present meta-analysis allows us to examine the direction of the
causal relationship between SFA and NA. Some researchers have
demonstrated that NA leads to an increase in self-focus (e.g.,
Salovey, 1992; Wood, Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990). Others have
indicated that a self-focusing tendency primes individuals to ex-
perience NA (Ingram, Cruet, Johnson, & Wisnicki, 1988). The
relationship between self-focus and NA has also been described as
a cyclic process in which dysphoric individuals engage in negative
self-focus, which exacerbates their dysphoria and predisposes
them to prolonged depression (J. Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 1986;
Nolen-Hoeksema & Morrow, 1993). We contrasted studies that
manipulated mood or affect with those that manipulated SFA to
gain further understanding of the causal precedence of one or the
MOR AND WINQUIST
other. As both data and theory suggest a reciprocal and cyclical
relationship between SFA and NA, we expected the mean effect
sizes associated with both types of designs would be positive. It is
important to note that causal statements regarding the relationship
between self-focus and NA would only pertain to negative mood
and cannot be applied to depressive and anxious disorders.
We address several questions regarding the choice of SFA
measurement in this review. The most common measure for
chronic SFA is the SCS (Fenigstein et al., 1975). This measure has
been critiqued for the low validity and reliability of its subscales,
and its factor structure has been questioned and alternative factors
have been proposed (Burnkrant & Page, 1984; Martin & Debus,
1999). Several alternative measures have been developed to ad-
dress shortcomings of the SCS (Burnkrant & Page, 1984; Scheier
& Carver, 1985). Thus, in this analysis we compared studies that
used the SCS and those that used other measures of SFA. Because
of the frequent use of the SCS, we were particularly interested in
determining the relative merits of this scale compared with exist-
Several self-focus manipulations have been used over the years.
The most common procedure for manipulating self-focus is plac-
ing a mirror in front of participants. Despite its common use, most
studies in the meta-analysis did not examine the utility of this
manipulation in obtaining the desired effect of increased self-
focus. Thus, we compared the magnitude of the effect sizes asso-
ciated with the various self-focus manipulations.
In summary, this review addresses several questions. We first
examine the overall relationship between SFA and NA. Then we
explore various moderator variables related to population charac-
teristics and aspects of self-focus and of NA. First, we examine
specific populations (i.e., males vs. females, clinical vs. nonclini-
cal) to determine whether the relationship between SFA and NA is
the same across these populations. Second, we compare effect
sizes associated with various types of self-focus, such as private
versus public and ruminative versus nonruminative self-focus.
Third, we attempt to determine whether specific forms of NA are
more strongly associated with SFA than are others. Finally, we
compare private and public SFA to determine whether private
self-focus is more strongly associated with depression, whereas
public self-focus is more strongly associated with anxiety.
Design of the Meta-Analysis
Assessment of NA
We included three types of NA measures in the study: negative
mood, depression, and anxiety. The inclusion of these three types
of measures is based on a number of theoretical considerations. In
particular, it follows the theories of Carver and Scheier (1981) and
of Duval and Wicklund (1972) regarding the relationship between
SFA and general NA. It also follows the predictions of self-
regulatory perseveration theory (Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987)
regarding the relationship between SFA and depression. Finally,
studies that assessed anxiety were included in the present meta-
analysis, as several anxiety conditions have been reported to be
associated with SFA. Because anxiety is a superordinate term for
several disorders, we included all available studies addressing any
of the following subordinate types of anxiety: social anxiety (e.g.,
Woody, 1996), panic disorder (e.g., Borden et al., 1993), general-
ized anxiety disorder (e.g., Wells, 1985), and test anxiety (e.g.,
Although self-evaluative processes have been associated with
self-esteem, which in turn has been found to be strongly associated
with depression (e.g., Butler, Hokanson, & Flynn, 1994; Metalsky,
Joiner, Hardin, & Abramson, 1993), we view self-esteem as being
beyond the scope of this review and thus excluded it from this
meta-analysis. Several studies assessed cognitive performance
(e.g., Lewis & Linder, 1997) under conditions of high and low
SFA. Although task performance is often associated with anxiety,
it is not a direct substitute for the affective core of anxiety.
Therefore, only studies that measured anxiety directly (either
through self-report or observer report) were included in this study.
Assessment of SFA
Studies using several types of measurement or manipulation of
SFA were included in the meta-analysis. Some studies experimen-
tally manipulated self-focus by placing a mirror in front of partic-
ipants (e.g., Carver et al., 1979) or by asking the participants to
write an essay that included the words I, me, mirror, or alone (e.g.,
Pyszczynski, Holt, & Greenberg, 1987). Other studies manipulated
SFA by instructing the participants to focus on their current
physical and emotional feeling, their personality, or their goals
(e.g., Lyubomirsky & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1993).
Self-report measures of SFA have been used mostly in correla-
tional designs. The most commonly used self-report measure is the
Public and Private Self-Consciousness Scale (Fenigstein et al.,
1975). Other common self-report measures are sentence comple-
tion tasks (Exner, 1973; Wegner & Giuliano, 1980); the extent to
which participants choose to complete sentences with the word I or
with other self-related words is assumed to reflect their tendency to
Types of Studies
Consistent with the above discussion, studies were included in
the meta-analysis if they reported using appropriate measures of
emotional disorders and of SFA and conducted an appropriate test
of the relationship between these measures. Three types of studies
were considered appropriate: (a) experimental designs that manip-
ulated SFA and measured emotional disorders using self-report
measures (e.g., Woody, 1996), (b) experimental designs that ma-
nipulated mood and measured SFA using self-report measures
(e.g., Salovey, 1992), and (c) correlational designs that measured
SFA and emotional disorders simultaneously when both were
measured using self-report measures (e.g., Anderson, Bohon, &
Sample of Studies
We conducted a computerized search using key word terms. These terms
were grouped into two sets and combined into a single search that included
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
at least one term from each of the two groups. The first group included the
following terms (using wild cards, such as focus* for focus, focusing,
focused, etc.): self-focus, self-aware, self-referent, self-conscious, preoc-
cupation, rumination, self-regulate, and self-direct. The second group
included the following terms: anxiety, depression, mood, affect, emotional
adjustment, well-being, phobia, dysphoria, panic, and emotional disorder.
The intersection of the two groups was entered into the following databases
from the beginning point of each database through the end of 1998:
PsycINFO, Educational Resources Information Center, MEDLINE, and
Dissertation Abstracts International. The Social Science Citation Index
was also searched for references citing the following seminal articles:
Ingram (1990b), Carver and Scheier (1981), Fenigstein et al. (1975), and
Pyszczynski and Greenberg (1987). In addition, reference lists of the
obtained articles as well as numerous review articles (e.g., Ingram, 1990b;
Pyszczynski, Hamilton, et al., 1991; Wood & Dodgson, 1996) were re-
viewed. Relevant books (e.g., Filipp et al., 1993; Schwarzer & Wicklund,
1991) and chapters were also reviewed but did not contain any data that
had not already been reported in individual research reports. Finally, we
obtained unpublished data from various researchers in the field via social
psychology and clinical psychology e-mail networks.
Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria
Studies were included in the meta-analysis if (a) they included either a
manipulation of mood states or at least one affect measure—that is, a
measure of mood, depression, or anxiety; (b) they included either a ma-
nipulation of attentional focus or a measure of SFA; or (c) they reported
correlations between the affect and the attentional focus measure or a
measure of group differences (such as t or F) in mood, emotional disorder
between groups differing in self-focus, or group differences in self-focus in
groups differing in mood or affect. Studies were excluded from this
meta-analysis if the measurement of SFA was confounded with the mea-
surement of NA. The most common example of studies excluded for this
reason is usage of an overall score on the SCS, which includes a Social
Anxiety subscale in addition to the Private and Public Self-Consciousness
subscales. Studies were also excluded if they reported only that the results
were or were not significant but did not provide the necessary statistical
information needed for computation of an effect size. Finally, studies that
reported only results of regression analyses were excluded from this
meta-analysis, as these analyses cannot be used for computation of effect
sizes (Hunter & Schmidt, 1990).
Variables Coded From Each Study
A standard coding sheet was completed for each study. The following
general information was coded: (a) date of publication, (b) publication
form (journal article, chapter, dissertation, or unpublished report), (c)
whether the study originated from a larger study for which more than one
subsample was used in the meta-analysis, (d) age group of participants
(children, adolescents, or adults), (e) population type (nonclinical, subclin-
ical, clinical), and (f) percentage of female participants.
We coded several characteristics of SFA for each study: (a) type (pri-
vate, public, both), (b) objective (whether it was ruminative), (c) valence
(positive, negative, neutral), and (d) whether SFA was manipulated, mea-
sured, or both. Self-focus was classified as private when individuals’
attention was turned to personal aspects of the self and as public when it
was turned to self-aspects that were relevant to others. Self-focus was
defined as ruminative when individuals’ attention was aimed at their
moods and the reasons for and implications of their moods.
Several characteristics of NA were coded for each study: (a) type (mood,
depression, or anxiety); (b) if mood, whether it was manipulated or mea-
sured; (c) if depression or anxiety, whether a self-report measure or a
clinical diagnosis from a version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders (DSM; e.g., 4th ed. [DSM–IV], American Psychiatric
Association, 1994) was used; (d) if anxiety, the type of anxiety symptoms
under study (generalized, social, specific phobia, panic, test anxiety, or
other); and (e) relevant situational context during or just prior to measure-
ment of self-focus and/or NA (i.e., the experience of positive or negative
events such as success and failure).
Information regarding the reliability of NA and SFA measures was also
coded. For each study, we noted whether reliability estimates were re-
ported, could be obtained from norms of the measures, or were not
available. In addition, when possible, we coded reliability estimates and the
type of reliability estimate (e.g., alpha, kappa, test–retest).
Finally, we coded each study for the direction of causal inference it
allowed. Studies were coded as relevant to the hypothesis that SFA leads
to NA if they included a controlled manipulation of SFA and measured NA
postmanipulation. Studies were coded as relevant to the hypothesis that NA
leads to SFA if they included a controlled manipulation of NA and
measured SFA postmanipulation. Otherwise, studies were coded as not
providing sufficient information for causal inference.
Both authors coded all studies, and we computed kappas to determine
interrater reliability. Kappa coefficients ranged from .80 to .99 with a mean
of .92 and a median of .94. All discrepancies were discussed until full
agreement was reached.
Computation and Analysis of Effect Sizes
The effect size index we used in this meta-analysis was d, the difference
between the means of the two groups (either two groups of self-focus or
two groups of NA) divided by the pooled standard deviation (see Hedges
& Olkin, 1985). This effect size was weighted by the reciprocal of its
variance to give more weight to studies with more reliable estimates. A
positive sign of the effect size indicates that higher levels of SFA were
associated with higher levels of NA.
Several studies presented data on the relationship between SFA and NA
separately for subgroups within the overall sample (e.g., males vs. fe-
males). In these studies, each subsample was treated as a separate study. In
addition, studies that included more than one situational context (e.g., both
failure and success conditions) were treated as separate reports, such that
each type of situational context served as a separate study. Although the
resulting partition of some of the studies produced some nonindependence
between the studies, this partition was necessary for the testing of the
hypotheses posed in this meta-analysis. In addition, the nonindependence
was never due to overlap in participants.
We computed effect sizes with the aid of a computer program (DSTAT
Version 1.10, B. T. Johnson, 1993). These computations were based on
reports of means and standard deviations, r values, t tests, and F ratios.
Description of the Database
Because we examined several independent variables (i.e., dif-
ferent types of self-focus) and several dependent variables (i.e.,
different types of NA), many studies yielded more than one rele-
vant effect size. Overall, 408 effect sizes were computed from all
available studies. However, as noted by H. Cooper and Hedges
(1994), using more than one effect size per sample violates the
independence assumptions of meta-analysis. Thus, we created a
data set that included only one effect size per sample. When more
than one effect size was available, effect sizes were combined
using one of the following two procedures. If intercorrelations
among the various independent or dependent variables to be ag-
gregated were available, we computed a combined effect size
MOR AND WINQUIST
using statistical procedures outlined by Gleser and Olkin (1994). If
these intercorrelations were not available, we computed the mean
effect size for the sample.
As correlational studies examined predictors of the variance in
self-focus and NA measures, whereas experimental studies exam-
ined the strength of a manipulation, we conducted separate anal-
yses for the two types of design. Thus, the overall data set included
a total of 226 independent effect sizes (N ? 30,763). The corre-
lational studies data set included a total of a 149 effect sizes (N
? 28,095). The majority of the effect sizes that were obtained from
experimental designs examined self-focus manipulations, whereas
only five studies examined mood manipulations (N ? 224). We
explored studies that manipulated mood separately. Thus, the
experimental studies data set included 72 effect sizes in which
self-focus was manipulated (N ? 2,444).
Characteristics of the Studies
In outlining the characteristics of the sample, we describe the
characteristics of the overall sample and then describe the charac-
teristics of each of the subsamples. The characteristics of the
included studies are presented in Table 1. The majority of the
studies included in this review were relatively recent and consisted
of published data. Most often, the sample was of a nonclinical
population. Samples typically included more female participants
than male participants. Most of the studies used a correlational
design in which SFA and NA were measured with self-report
scales. The most common self-focus measure used was the SCS.
Temporary negative mood was usually assessed using a variety of
mood adjective Likert scales. The Beck Depression Inventory
(BDI; Beck, 1967) was the modal depression measure, and the
Social Anxiety subscale of the SCS was the modal anxiety mea-
sure. The most common self-focus manipulation procedures in-
cluded instructing participants to focus on themselves and placing
a mirror in front of the participants.
Summary of Study-Level Effect Sizes
The summary of the study-level effect sizes presented in Table
2 allows one to examine whether, on the whole, heightened SFA is
associated with higher levels of NA. The weighted mean effect
size averaged across the 149 correlational studies yielding study-
level effect sizes was 0.51, and the weighted mean effect size
averaged across the 72 experimental studies yielding study-level
effect sizes was 0.44. The weighted mean effect size for studies
that manipulated NA was 0.55. All three mean effect sizes differed
significantly from zero. Thus, higher self-focus is associated with
higher levels of NA. These effect sizes represent a medium mag-
nitude effect size according to Cohen’s (1988) effect size classi-
fication. A mean effect size of this magnitude is considered by
Cohen to be large enough to be visible to the naked eye. The mean
effect size for the correlational studies is equivalent to a correlation
of .25, and that of the experimental studies is equivalent to a
correlation of .20. The mean effect size for studies that manipu-
lated NA is equivalent to a correlation of .26. These findings
suggest that overall SFA accounts for about 4–6% of the variance
The proportion of study-level comparisons supporting a positive
relationship between self-focus and NA (140 of 149 for the cor-
relational studies and 56 of the 72 experimental studies, or .93 and
.77 of the studies, respectively) was significantly different from
the 0.50 expected under the null hypothesis (p ? .001, by sign
To address concerns of publication bias, whereby the results of
the meta-analysis may be biased because of the tendency to pri-
marily report and publish statistically significant results, we cal-
culated a fail-safe N (Orwin, 1983). This procedure involves
estimation of the number of unreported unpublished studies re-
quired to negate the significant effect found. The results of the
fail-safe N analysis indicate that to reduce the obtained mean effect
size of 0.51 across the 149 correlational studies to a mean effect
size of 0.3, there would have had to be 268 effect sizes of zero. To
reduce the obtained mean effect size of 0.41 across the 72 exper-
imental studies to a mean effect size of 0.3, there would have had
to be 107 effect sizes of zero. Thus, in both study designs, the
number of studies that would have had to report null results to
reduce the mean effect size from the obtained effect size to a 0.3
mean effect size exceeds the number of studies included in this
meta-analysis. For the purposes of this meta-analysis we had to
exclude 28 studies for which we could not compute an effect size.
Of those studies, 17 reported significant results, whereas 11 re-
ported nonsignificant results.
Although the study-level effect sizes were not skewed, neither
were they homogeneous (see Table 2). Homogeneity was not
attained until 52 (correlational) and 17 (experimental) effect sizes
(34.9% and 23.6% of the effects, respectively) were removed.
Removing these outliers did not significantly change the overall
mean effect sizes, which were 0.49 for the correlational studies
and 0.53 for the experimental studies—still significantly different
from zero. On the basis of these results and of our theoretical
Summary of Study Characteristics
No. of studies
Year of publication
% female (M)
Age of participants (n)
Children (under 12 years)
Adolescents (12–17 years)
Adults (18 years and older)
Nonclinical vs. subclinical
Nonclinical vs. clinical
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
conceptualization of the key possible moderating variables, we
proceeded to test the influence of the coded categorical and con-
tinuous variables on the effect sizes.
For both the experimental and the correlational designs, the
mean year of publication was 1990. For both types of designs,
there was a significant effect for year of publication on mean effect
size (correlational studies: b ? 0.02, ? ? .22, p ? .001; experi-
mental studies: b ? 0.03, ? ? .31, p ? .001), such that more recent
studies were characterized by larger positive effect sizes. Because
year of publication was a significant predictor of the magnitude of
the effect size for both correlational and experimental designs, we
examined possible explanatory factors of this effect by conducting
an overall median split by year and comparing sample qualities
between the earlier and the later studies. Studies published before
1990 included more nonclinical samples (78% and 71%, respec-
tively) and smaller overall female percentages (51% and 60%,
respectively). In addition, earlier studies used weaker self-focus
manipulations. Early studies primarily used exposure to a mirror
(across all years, d ? 0.21, n ? 26), whereas later studies primarily
used self-focus manipulations in which participants were in-
structed to focus on themselves (across all years, d ? 0.75, n ?
29). Nonetheless, some of the increase in effect size magnitude
does not seem to be reducible to change in methods. More recent
studies yielded stronger effect sizes even when using the same
self-focus measures or manipulations. For example, studies that
used the SCS prior to 1990 yielded a mean effect size of 0.43,
whereas studies conducted after 1990 yielded a mean effect size
of 0.49 using the same measure. The same was true of the mirror
manipulation, which yielded a mean effect size of 0.11 before
1990 and a mean effect size of 0.97 after 1990. Thus, the larger
effect for studies published after 1990 seems to be associated with
a combination of the choice of population (more females and more
clinical samples) and methodological changes.
To examine the existence of a publication bias in the data set, we
compared the effect sizes of studies published in peer-reviewed
journals with those obtained from dissertations and unpublished
studies. Among the correlational studies, the effect sizes of pub-
lished studies were not significantly higher than those obtained
from unpublished studies (d ? 0.50, n ? 122, and d ? 0.50, n
? 18, respectively, QB ? 6.23). However, among the experi-
mental studies, the effect sizes of published studies were signifi-
cantly higher than those obtained from unpublished studies
(d ? 0.59, n ? 46, and d ? 0.22, n ? 22, respectively, QB
Percentage of Female Participants
The percentage of female participants in the studies was hypoth-
esized to predict the magnitude of the effect size for the relation-
ship between SFA and NA. We hypothesized, on the basis of
Nolen-Hoeksema’s (1987, 1991) response style theory, that as the
proportion of females in the sample increased, the magnitude of
the effect size would increase because women are more likely to
use rumination rather than other types of self-focus. Only 106
correlational studies (71.14%) and 49 experimental studies
(68.06%) provided information about the proportion of female
participants. As predicted, a significant positive relationship was
found between percentage of female participants and magnitude of
effect size among the correlational studies (b ? 0.05, ? ? .32, p
? .001). However, this relationship was not significant among the
experimental studies (b ? 0.02, ? ? .10, p ? .16). This nonsig-
nificant result would be expected because both the male and
female participants in the samples were exposed to the same
Age of Participants
The relationship between SFA and NA was also moderated by
the age of the participants. The majority of studies examined adult
samples. Among the correlational studies, only one study exam-
ined children; therefore, we compared effect sizes obtained from
adult and adolescent samples. Larger effect sizes were obtained in
studies that examined adults than in those that examined adoles-
cents, QB(1) ? 43.53, p ? .001. Among the experimental studies
only one study examined children, whereas all other studies ex-
amined adult samples. We therefore did not compare these studies.
Although the findings obtained from the correlational studies were
consistent with our predictions, it is important to interpret these
results with caution because of the relatively small number of
studies examining children and adolescents (particularly children).
Clinical Status of Participants
The magnitude of the relationship between SFA and NA was
significantly related to the clinical status of the participants,
QB(4) ? 25.48, p ? .001, for the correlational studies and,
QB(3) ? 42.04, p ? .001, for the experimental studies. Among the
correlational studies, self-focus correlated with NA most strongly
among clinical samples (d ? 0.82, n ? 5), compared with sub-
clinical (d ? 0.43, n ? 3) and nonclinical (d ? 0.50, n ? 113)
samples. Post hoc tests pointed to significant differences between
clinical and subclinical samples, ?2(4, N ? 719) ? 10.50, p ? .03,
Summary of Overall and Study-Level Effect Sizes
No. of studies
Overall no. of participants
Weighted overall da
95% confidence interval for d
Homogeneity (Q) of
positively related and negative when self-focus and negative affect are
negatively related. Significance for Q indicates rejection of the hypothesis
aEffect sizes are weighted by the reciprocal of the variance.
** p ? .01.
Effect sizes are positive when self-focus and negative affect are
MOR AND WINQUIST
and between clinical and nonclinical samples, ?2(4, N ?
24,933) ? 23.84, p ? .001. Findings based on the experimental
studies indicate that participants in clinical (d ? 0.88, n ? 3) or
subclinical (d ? 0.94, n ? 17) samples responded with higher
levels of NA to self-focus manipulations than did participants in
nonclinical samples (d ? 0.31, n ? 50). Post hoc tests pointed to
significant differences between clinical and nonclinical samples,
?2(4, N ? 24,933) ? 6.39, p ? .09, and between subclinical and
nonclinical samples, ?2(4, N ? 719) ? 34.98, p ? .001. To
address the possibility that a high proportion of female participants
in clinical samples contributed to higher magnitude of the effect
size associated with clinical samples, we examined the relationship
between the magnitude of the effect size and percentage of female
participants within the clinical samples. The mean percentage of
females in clinical samples was 55.2, which was lower than the
overall mean percentage of females. In addition, among the clin-
ical samples, the proportion of female participants was negatively
correlated with the magnitude of the effect size (r ? ?.44, p ?
Characteristics of Self-Focus
Ruminative self-focus was hypothesized to yield stronger effect
sizes than would other types of self-focus. This hypothesis was
tested by comparing the mean effect size for ruminative self-focus
with nonruminative self-focus. As predicted, rumination was more
strongly related to NA than was nonruminative self-focus,
QB(1) ? 307.49, p ? .001, for correlational studies and,
QB(1) ? 24.53, p ? .001, for experimental studies (see Table 3).
These results seem to support Nolen-Hoeksema’s (1987, 1991)
assertion that rumination is a particularly maladaptive type of
Several measurement issues need to be considered before com-
pletely endorsing Nolen-Hoeksema’s (1987, 1991) model. First,
among the correlational studies, those that examined rumination
used measures with overall higher reliability (mean r ? .88),
compared with those that examined nonruminative self-focus
(mean r ? .79). The higher reliability of rumination measures may
have contributed to the strong relationship between measures of
rumination and NA.
In addition, among the experimental studies, rumination studies
typically instructed participants to focus on themselves (and par-
ticularly on their mood and the reasons and consequences for their
mood), whereas the most common manipulation within the non-
rumination studies was presentation of a mirror. Whereas instruct-
ing one to focus on oneself is an explicit self-focus manipulation,
a mirror manipulation is an implicit one and thus might not be as
strong a manipulation. In addition, rumination focuses directly on
the emotion, whereas other global measures of self-focus may
involve appearance, plans, personal characteristics, and other self-
aspects that may not bear directly on affect.
Private and Public Self-Focus
Results comparing the magnitude of the relationship between
self-focus and NA for private and public self-focus are presented
in Table 3. Across both study designs, the majority of studies
examined private self-focus. The mean effect size for public self-
focus was significantly higher than the mean effect size for private
self-focus, QB(1) ? 8.43, p ? .001, among correlational studies.
This difference was not statistically significant among the exper-
imental studies, QB(1) ? 0.42, p ? .51. This effect, found among
the correlational studies, should be considered with caution, as we
later explore the interactive effect of focus of self-attention (pri-
vate vs. public) and type of NA.
We hypothesized that heightened SFA on negative self-aspects
would be related to higher levels of NA but that heightened SFA
Categorical Model for Effect Sizes by Type of Self-Focused Attention
effect size (d) 95% CI
each class (QW)
Private and public
Private and public
** p ? .01.
CI ? confidence interval.
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
on positive self-aspects would be related to lower levels of NA.
Unfortunately, very few studies assessed the valence of self-focus.
Thus, to obtain sufficient effect sizes for each valence category
(i.e., positive, negative, neutral), we used a shifting unit of analysis
whereby we included all effect sizes of studies that measured
self-focus valence and aggregated studies within this moderator to
allow maximum independence of effect sizes (H. M. Cooper,
1998). Because there were no studies that experimentally manip-
ulated positive self-focus, we report results obtained for correla-
tional studies and for studies that manipulated NA and examined
its effects on differentially valenced self-focus. Results of this
comparison are presented in Table 4. The results were consistent
across correlational and experimental designs. Whereas heightened
attention to negative aspects of the self was strongly related to
higher levels of NA (correlational studies: d ? 0.95, n ? 10;
experimental studies: d ? 0.97, n ? 1), heightened attention to
positive aspects of the self was related to lower levels of NA
(correlational studies: d ? ?0.26, n ? 7; experimental studies: d
? ?0.86, n ? 1). Mean effect sizes for both negative and positive
self-focus were significantly different from zero. These results
support our initial hypothesis regarding the importance of valence
of the self-aspects one attends to.
The Context for Self-Focus
On the basis of Pyszczynski and Greenberg’s (1987) study, we
expected that self-focus following a positive event (e.g., success)
would be associated with lower levels of NA. To test this hypoth-
esis, we compared studies in which participants experienced a
positive event prior to or during the time they engaged in self-
focus with those in which they experienced a negative event (e.g.,
a failure manipulation or a stressful event) prior to or during the
time they engaged in self-focus.
The relationship between self-focus and NA was indeed contin-
gent on the context in which self-focus took place (see Table 5).
Among the correlational studies, heightened self-focus after a
negative event was associated with NA (d ? 0.72, n ? 20). In
contrast, heightened attention to the self after a positive event (d ?
?0.24, n ? 5) was not associated with NA (although the mean
effect size was negative, it was not significantly different from
zero). The mean effect sizes associated with positive and negative
contexts differed significantly, ?2(1, N ? 1,335) ? 28.58, p ?
.001. Similarly, among the experimental studies, heightened self-
focus after a negative event was associated with NA (d ? 0.37, n
? 29). In contrast, heightened attention to the self after a positive
event (d ? 0.06, n ? 5) was not associated with NA. As a result
of the large uncertainty associated with the mean effect size for
studies in the positive context group (confidence interval [CI] ?
?0.32/0.44), the mean effect sizes associated with positive and
negative contexts did not differ significantly.
Unfortunately, only a small number of studies (correlational: n
? 25; experimental: n ? 34) examined the effects of context on
the relationship between self-focus and NA, and only five in either
design paradigm examined self-focus in a positive context. Despite
the tentative nature of these results, we believe that they provide
support for our initial prediction that self-focus would have neg-
ative affective consequences following negative events but not
following positive events and that they contribute to the under-
standing of contextual factors related to self-focus.
Characteristics of NA: The Specificity of the Relationship
As mentioned earlier, one of the important controversies in this
field has been the specificity of the relationship between SFA and
types of NA or of psychopathology (cf. Ingram, 1990b, 1991;
Pyszczynski, Greenberg, et al., 1991). We tested the specificity of
the relationship by comparing effect sizes from studies that used
negative mood, depression, and anxiety as variables. By conduct-
ing this comparison, we attempted to answer two questions. First,
is self-focus positively related to temporary negative affective
states (i.e., mood) as well as to more long-lasting negative affec-
tivity (i.e., depressive and anxiety symptomatology)? Second, is
self-focus related to anxiety to the same degree as to depressive
symptomatology? Because the experimental studies primarily ex-
amined temporary mood rather than depression and anxiety
(n ? 64 for mood, n ? 2 for anxiety), analyses comparing mood,
depression, and anxiety were conducted using the correlational
studies only. Analyses conducted to answer the first question
Categorical Model for Effect Sizes by Valence of Self-Focused Attention
effect size (d) 95% CI
each class (QW)
Experimental (manipulated negative affect)
some effect sizes that are nonindependent. CI ? confidence interval.
** p ? .01.
Because of the small number of studies that assessed self-focus valence, these results are based on the shifting unit of analysis procedure and include
MOR AND WINQUIST
indicated that SFA was positively related to both temporary mood
states and depression and anxiety symptomatology. All three mean
effect sizes were significantly different from zero (see Table 6).
The effect size associated with negative mood was not signifi-
cantly different from the effect size associated with depression and
anxiety combined, QB(1) ? 0.21, ns, or from depression and
anxiety alone, ?2(2, N ? 11,514) ? 4.59, p ? .10, for depression
and, ?2(2, N ? 13,319) ? 5.50, p ? .06, for anxiety. Analyses
conducted to answer the second question indicated that the rela-
tionship between depression and self-focus was stronger than the
relationship between anxiety and self-focus, ?2(2, N ? 21,779) ?
76.03, p ? .001.
As we noted above, anxiety is a broad term that subsumes
several distinct groups of psychopathology symptoms. To further
explore the specificity of the relationship between SFA and NA,
we examined the relationship between self-focus and various anx-
iety conditions. Overall, generalized anxiety was most related to
SFA (d ? 0.91, n ? 7, CI ? 0.76/1.06). Social anxiety (the most
commonly studied form of anxiety, with 40 of the 56 studies) was
moderately positively associated with self-focus (d ? 0.41, n
? 42, CI ? 0.38/0.44). Though the mean effect size associated
with panic disorder (d ? 0.39, n ? 2, CI ? ?0.01/0.79) was very
close to that of social anxiety, it aggregated only two studies and
thus is highly unreliable.
It is important to examine whether the mean effect size for
social anxiety was inflated by the frequent use of the Social
Anxiety subscale of the SCS and the shared method variance
between this subscale and the Private and Public Self-
Consciousness subscales of this measure. Thus, we removed stud-
ies that used this subscale from the analysis. The resulting mean
effect size for studies of social anxiety was higher than the orig-
inally obtained one (d ? 0.43, n ? 13). On the basis of these
results, we can conclude that the mean effect size for social anxiety
was not inflated by the use of the Social Anxiety subscale.
Interactive Effects of Types of Self-Focus and NA
In the previous sections, we explored the features and types of
SFA that moderate the relationship between self-focus and NA as
well as the features and classes of NA that moderate this relation-
ship. However, a more complex type of moderation may be re-
vealed when subtypes of SFA are considered in interaction with
subtypes of NA. In this section, we turn to such an interactive
comparison. Specifically, we predicted that private self-focus
would be primarily associated with depression, whereas public
self-focus would be primarily associated with anxiety. Two sets of
comparisons were made to test this hypothesis. The first set com-
pared studies exploring private versus public SFA within studies
that examined the same NA variable (anxiety vs. depression). The
second set compared studies exploring anxiety versus depression
within studies that examined the same type of self-focus (private
vs. public). To investigate these interactive effects, we conducted
simple effects analyses. Because of the limited number of studies
in the experimental data set that examined depression and anxiety,
Categorical Model for Effect Sizes by Context of Self-Focused Attention (SFA)
Context of SFA
effect size (d) 95% CI
each class (QW)
* p ? .05.
CI ? confidence interval.
** p ? .01.
Categorical Model for Effect Sizes by Type of Negative Affect
effect size (d) 95% CI
each class (QW)
** p ? .01.
CI ? confidence interval.
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
we conducted these analyses using the correlational data set only.
The results of these analyses are presented in Table 7.
Among studies that explored depression, those that examined
private self-focus yielded a higher mean effect size (d ? 0.67, n ?
34) than the single effect size of the study that examined public
self-focus (d ? 0.52, n ? 1). This difference was statistically
significant, QB(1) ? 11.26, p ? .001.
Among studies that explored anxiety, those that examined pub-
lic self-focus yielded a higher mean effect size (d ? 0.74, n ? 8)
than did those that examined private self-focus (d ? 0.08, n ? 4).
This difference was statistically significant, QB(1) ? 147.99, p ?
Among studies that explored private self-focus, those that ex-
amined depression yielded a higher mean effect size (d ? 0.67,
n ? 34) than did those that examined anxiety (d ? 0.08, n ? 4).
This difference was statistically significant, QB(1) ? 175.13, p ?
Among studies that explored public self-focus, those that exam-
ined anxiety yielded a higher mean effect size (d ? 0.74, n ? 8)
than did the single study that examined depression (d ? 0.52, n ?
1). This difference was statistically significant, QB(1) ? 15.98, p
Taken together, the results of these interaction analyses support
our initial prediction whereby private self-focus is more strongly
associated with depression and public self-focus is more strongly
associated with anxiety. However, because anxiety is heteroge-
neous and because it subsumes various constructs, we examined
the relationship of private and public self-focus with the various
anxiety conditions. Unfortunately, the dearth of studies examining
each of the anxiety constructs limited the possible analyses. We
compared private and public self-focus among studies of social
anxiety and those of generalized anxiety. Among studies of social
anxiety, public self-focus yielded higher effect sizes (d ? 0.73,
n ? 6) than did private self-focus (d ? ?0.04, n ? 1), ?2(1, N
? 9,682) ? 181.69, p ? .001. Among studies of generalized
anxiety there was no difference between private and public self-
focus (d ? 0.83, n ? 2 for private, d ? 0.81, n ? 2 for public).
Direction of Causality
The direction of the causal relationship between SFA and NA
was examined in this synthesis. Several possible causal pathways
have been described for the relationship between NA and self-
focus: (a) Self-focus leads to NA; (b) NA leads to self-focus; (c)
self-focus leads to NA, which in turn leads to more self-focus; and
(d) NA leads to self-focus, which in turn leads to more NA.
Because of the nature of the available study designs, only the first
two causal pathways could be contrasted in this meta-analysis.
We compared three groups of studies. The first group consisted
of studies in which self-focus was manipulated and can provide
support for the first causal pathway. The second group consisted of
studies in which NA was manipulated and can provide support for
the second causal pathway. The third group is one in which neither
NA nor SFA was manipulated and cannot provide support to either
of the possible causal pathways. For the purpose of this compar-
ison, we combined these groups of studies across the data sets
examined in this meta-analysis.
As mentioned earlier, most of the studies (n ? 149) used
correlational designs, a minority used self-focus manipulations
(n ? 72), and only five studies used a NA manipulation. Overall,
all three groups of studies obtained moderate effect sizes that
differed significantly from zero (d ? 0.51, 0.44, and 0.55, respec-
tively). The effects associated with the three study designs did not
differ significantly from each other, QB(2)? 2.29, ns. These results
seem to support the reciprocity of the relationship between self-
focus and NA.
Despite several critiques of the SCS, it has been the most
frequently used measure of self-focus. Using the correlational data
set, we compared the mean effect size for studies that used this
measure with all other studies. The mean effect size for studies
using the SCS (either its private or public subscales) was compared
with the mean effect size of studies that used any other nonma-
nipulation self-focus measure. The results indicated that the mean
effect size associated with the SCS was lower than that of the other
measures (d ? 0.47, n ? 72, and d ? 0.55, n ? 77, respectively,
QB ? 22.00, p ? .001).
Some may argue that the reported overall mean effect size for
the relationship between SFA and NA (d ? 0.51) is inflated by the
use of confounded measures of self-focus and NA. Such claims
may be particularly relevant to the frequent use within the same
study of the three subscales of the SCS: the Private and Public
Self-Consciousness subscales on the one hand, and the Social
Anxiety subscale on the other. To examine this argument, we
compared the mean effect size obtained from studies that used the
Social Anxiety subscale and either the private or the public sub-
scale to the mean effect size of all other studies. The results
suggest that use of the SCS did not inflate the overall mean effect
size. In fact, the mean effect size obtained from studies that used
this procedure (d ? 0.44, n ? 23) was significantly smaller than
the mean effect size obtained from all other studies (d ? 0.52, n ?
126, QB ? 12.57, p ? .001).
Manipulation of Self-Focus
Approximately one third of the studies used a self-focus manip-
ulation. A further examination of the effect of shared method
variance of self-focus and NA on the overall mean effect size can
be done by comparing the mean effect sizes obtained from studies
Interactive Effect of Type of Self-Focused Attention and Type of
MOR AND WINQUIST
that used a manipulation of self-focus with those from studies that
measured self-focus. The mean effect sizes for the two groups of
studies were not significantly different from each other (manipu-
lations: d ? 0.45, n ? 72; measures: d ? 0.51, n ? 149; QB
? 1.92, p ? .17). This finding supports the validity of the overall
Several self-focus manipulations have been used over the past 3
decades. As a final measurement-related analysis, we compared
the various self-focus manipulations to determine which ones yield
stronger effects. The most common manipulations were seating
participants in front of a mirror or instructing them to focus on
themselves. The manipulations that yielded the strongest effects
were the instruction to focus on oneself (d ? 0.75, n ? 29,
CI ? 0.62/0.87), giving a speech (d ? 0.62, n ? 2, CI ? 0.16/
1.08), and listening to one’s voice (d ? 0.37, n ? 1, CI ?
?0.20/0.94). The mirror (d ? 0.21, n ? 26, CI ? 0.06/0.35) and
the video (d ? 0.23, n ? 11, CI ? 0.01/0.45) manipulations and
writing an essay using I, me, or similar words (d ? 0.26, n ? 3,
CI ? ?0.005/0.53) were far weaker.
Overview of the Results
This meta-analysis revealed an overall moderate relationship
(d ? 0.51 for correlational designs and d ? 0.41 for experimental
designs) between SFA and NA. According to Cohen’s (1988)
criteria, the strength of this relationship is moderate, that is, ob-
servable to the naked eye. This relationship was qualified by
population-related factors as well as by factors associated with the
definition and measurement of self-focus and of NA.
The analysis revealed that several population variables moder-
ated the relationship between SFA and NA. One main variable was
gender: Among the correlational studies, a stronger relationship
between SFA and NA was associated with a higher percentage of
female participants in a study. Another main variable was the
clinical status of the participants: Samples from clinical popula-
tions yielded stronger effects than did samples of nonclinical
In addition, several important characteristics of self-focus mod-
erated the relationship between self-focus and NA. These included
the self-aspect to which one attends, self-focus valence, and the
context in which self-focus occurred. Rumination, self-focus on
one’s negative mood, its causes and consequences, was more
strongly related to NA than self-focus on other self-aspects. Focus
on negative self-aspects was associated with higher NA, whereas
focus on positive self-aspects was related to lower NA. Similarly,
the context of self-focus affected the relationship between self-
focus and NA. Self-focus after negative events was associated with
NA, whereas self-focus after positive events was unrelated to NA.
We explored several aspects of the specificity of the relationship
between self-focus and NA (i.e., unique interactive pattern of SFA
and NA). All three forms of NA (depression, anxiety, and negative
mood) were significantly related to self-focus. Depression was
more strongly associated with self-focus than was overall anxiety.
However, when specific anxiety conditions were examined, gen-
eralized anxiety was more strongly associated with self-focus than
was depression, whereas the opposite was true for social anxiety.
Perhaps our most important finding relates to the interplay
between public and private SFA and different forms of NA or
psychopathology. Specifically, although overall NA is more
strongly associated with public self-focus than with private self-
focus, an interaction exists between the forms of NA and type of
self-focus: Private self-focus is more strongly related to depres-
sion, whereas public self-focus is more strongly related to social
Our findings have theoretical implications for models of per-
sonality, affect and cognition, and self-regulation, as well as prac-
tical measurement implications. We first review the implications
of the findings for social cognition and for psychopathology re-
search. We then discuss their measurement implications.
The multifaceted nature of self-focus.
results suggest that SFA should not be construed as a unitary
construct. It is an umbrella term for focusing on various aspects of
the self in various contexts. Specification of types of SFA is
important because, as the meta-analysis results indicate, the affec-
tive implications of self-focus depend not only on the amount
(excessive or not) of self-focus, but also, and maybe more impor-
tantly, on the type of self-focus. The findings of this meta-analysis
suggest that individuals who engage in similar degrees of self-
focus may experience very different emotional consequences. For
example, when individuals focus on private self-aspects, they are
more likely to experience depression, whereas when they focus on
public self-aspects, they are more likely to experience social anx-
iety. Similarly, focus on positive aspects of the self has different
affective implications than focus on negative aspects.
In his seminal review, Ingram (1990b) described self-focus as a
construct that varies along several dimensions (i.e., degree, dura-
tion, and flexibility). According to Ingram, NA and emotional
disorders are associated with rigid or inflexible self-focus. In
contrast, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, et al. (1991) noted that de-
pressed individuals exhibit a particular maladaptive pattern of
self-focusing: They focus on themselves following or during neg-
ative and stressful events but not after positive events. This pattern,
then, demonstrates that self-focus in depressed individuals is not
rigid and inflexible but rather varies by context. As contextual
factors play an important role in the relationship of NA and
self-focus, the role of rigidity in this relationship becomes unclear.
Unfortunately, studies that directly examine the effects of rigidity
on the relationship between self-focus and NA could not be located
for this meta-analysis. In addition, being inflexible about self-
focus may be maladaptive but is not, in and of itself, a sufficient
condition for NA. Although intransigent self-focus may be asso-
ciated with other psychopathological states, the results of this
meta-analysis support the approach presented by Pyszczynski,
Greenberg, et al., who suggested that even individuals who engage
in rigid and inflexible self-focus may not experience NA if they
focus their attention on positive self-aspects.
The multifaceted nature of SFA has implications not only for
affective processes but also for other behavioral and cognitive
First and foremost, our
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
correlates and consequences. For example, self-focus has been
shown to promote the suppression of stereotypes (e.g., Macrae,
Bodenhausen, & Milne, 1998). It is also associated with increased
social comparison (e.g., Duval, Duval, & Mulilis, 1992), a pro-
pensity for internal attributions (e.g., J. Greenberg, Pyszczynski,
Burling, & Tibbs, 1992; Nadler, 1983), and task performance (e.g.,
Lewis & Linder, 1997). Similar to the research on the affective
correlates of SFA, research on these behavioral and cognitive
correlates has largely ignored the multifaceted nature of SFA. As
is true for the relationship between NA and SFA, contextual
factors and population characteristics may lead to very different
conclusions regarding the relationship between these various con-
structs and SFA. Thus, the results of this meta-analysis cast doubt
on the generalizability of previous findings regarding the relation-
ship between SFA and nonaffective constructs.
In sum, considering self-focus as a multifaceted construct would
facilitate a comprehensive examination of the intricate causal
relationships and processes between self-focus and affective, cog-
nitive, and behavioral constructs. Several of the results of the
meta-analysis highlight the importance of specifying factors of
self-focus that moderate its relationship with NA. Given these
findings, we find it imperative that researchers take a multifaceted
contextualized approach to the study of SFA.
SFA is thought to play a major role in self-
regulatory processes. Carver and Scheier (e.g., 1998) suggested
that self-focus occurs during the testing phase of the self-
regulatory process. In this phase, people compare their current
standing with a particular salient self-standard and determine
whether they are meeting this standard. When individuals recog-
nize that they fall short of the standard, they typically make
attempts to meet the standard. When the standard is met, this
self-regulatory process ends. However, when progress toward the
standard is slow or the discrepancy between the current standing
and the desired state seems impossible to bridge, NA ensues.
Carver and Scheier (1998) also discussed the bidirectionality of the
relationship between SFA and NA and the role NA plays in
drawing attention to the self. Similarly, Morris (1999) pointed out
that negative mood serves as an indicator that something is wrong
and thus leads to self-focus in an effort to address the problem.
This approach is consistent with the mood-as-information theory,
which contends that people use mood cues as important informa-
tion that guides them in decision making and attitude formation
(Schwartz & Clore, 1996).
Our comparison of studies examining the valence of self-focus
revealed that NA occurred after participants focused on their
deficiencies but not when they focused on their positive aspects. In
fact, when participants did not fall short of their standard, the
relationship between self-focus and NA was negative. In addition,
our examination of the causal direction of the relationship between
SFA and NA revealed a reciprocal relationship in which SFA leads
to NA and NA leads to SFA. Taken together, these results con-
tribute to the understanding of the role of SFA in self-regulatory
processes. They point to the cyclical nature of the relationship
between SFA and NA that is characteristic of self-regulatory
processes, and they emphasize the importance of discrepancies
from a standard to the understanding of the relationship between
NA and SFA.
In summary, the results of this meta-analysis support previous
calls (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, et al.,
1991) regarding the necessity of understanding SFA as part of an
overall self-regulatory process. According to these theories, atten-
tion to the self interacts with other cognitive processes and con-
textual factors to differentially impact NA. Indeed, the results of
our review lead us to conclude that it is not SFA, in and of itself,
that is related to NA. Instead, it is the role SFA plays as part of a
self-regulatory process that underlies the association with NA.
Temporary and chronic sources of variability in self-focus.
Psychological states have two sources of variability: temporary
and chronic (Higgins, 1999). Various cognitive structures and
processes (e.g., knowledge activation and self-regulation) can vary
as a function of both person and situation factors such that
a “general principles” perspective points to a different research en-
terprise than the traditional perspectives on personality. Rather than a
concern with personality principles of psychology that provide unique
“person” explanations for people’s psychological states, general prin-
ciples that explain variation across both persons and situations would
be sought. (Higgins, 1999, p. 85)
Our results demonstrate how this general principles approach can
be exemplified in the study of SFA. Specifically, we found that
studies that manipulated self-focus had effect sizes that were
moderate and comparable to studies that measured self-focus as an
individual difference variable. This finding suggests that the rela-
tionship between self-focus and NA occurs when self-focus is
construed as either a temporary (typically manipulated) or a
chronic state (measured). Thus, a full understanding of the con-
struct of SFA and its relationship to other psychological states
requires synthesis of information that is obtained from both person
and situation sources of variability. Individuals may be character-
ized as high on the “trait” of self-consciousness or can be induced
to experience temporary states of heightened self-focus. Higgins
(1999) described two processes by which situation and person
sources of variability work together; they may compensate for
each other or inhibit each other. These sources of variability are
said to compensate for each other when increased situational
accessibility makes up for low chronic accessibility. On the other
hand, these sources of variability are said to inhibit each other
when a situational framing inhibits the person’s chronic predispo-
sition. Compensation within the context of self-focus may occur
when a non-self-conscious person is exposed to a self-focus in-
duction (e.g., a mirror, giving a speech, etc.) and acts as a “highly
self-conscious” individual. Inhibition occurs when a highly self-
conscious person is situationally distracted from focusing on the
self and functions as a low self-conscious individual. Further
exploration of temporary and chronic sources of variability in SFA
and NA is needed to better understand the interactive effects of
compensatory and inhibitory processes in self-focus.
In sum, the results of this meta-analysis bear relevance to
several key issues in social cognition. First, we have demonstrated
that SFA is a multifaceted construct. Careful examination of SFA
requires addressing contextual factors that influence the process of
self-focusing as well as its emotional, cognitive, and behavioral
concomitants and consequences. In addition, examination of SFA
also requires addressing the type of self-focus in which one en-
gages, or the aspects of the self to which one attends. Relatedly,
MOR AND WINQUIST
SFA and the relationship between SFA and affective experience
should be examined as part of a more general process of self-
regulation in which reciprocal relationships between these pro-
cesses take place over time. Finally, we have demonstrated both
“person” and “situation” sources of variability in SFA. The inter-
active effects of these sources of variability on SFA and on related
affective processes seem to be the next step in the exploration of
The results of this meta-analysis indicate that SFA is associated
with negative mood, anxiety, and depression. This general finding
partially supports Ingram’s (1990b) notion of the generalizability
of the relationship between SFA and NA. Although depression was
more strongly associated with SFA than was overall anxiety (com-
bined across various anxiety conditions), when examined sepa-
rately, generalized anxiety was more strongly associated with
self-focus than was depression. Thus, these results do not seem to
support views that afford depression a privileged relationship with
SFA (e.g., Pyszczynski & Greenberg’s, 1987, model).
The overall relationship between SFA and depression and anx-
iety was qualified by a pattern of relationships between private and
public self-focus and depression and anxiety. There was a strong
relationship between private SFA and depression and between
public SFA and anxiety, particularly social anxiety. The relation-
ship between depression and public SFA was somewhat weaker,
whereas the relationship between social anxiety and private self-
focus was significantly weaker. For generalized anxiety, there was
no difference between private and public self-focus, and the effect
sizes associated with generalized anxiety were higher than those
associated with either depression, negative mood, or other forms of
In the following discussion of this pattern of results, we address
several questions. First, we address possible explanations for the
strong association between anxiety (primarily generalized and
social anxiety) and public SFA and between depression and private
SFA. Second, we address possible explanations for the existence
of a relationship between depression and public SFA and between
anxiety and private SFA. Last, we address the difference in the
magnitude of the relationship between depression and public SFA
and social anxiety and private SFA and possible explanations for
finding a relatively smaller relationship between social anxiety and
The relationship between anxiety and public self-focus and
depression and private self-focus.
tween anxiety and public SFA and between depression and private
SFA is consistent with our initial hypothesis regarding the inter-
active effects of type of self-focus and type of NA, based on
self-discrepancy theory (Higgins, 1987, 1999). According to this
theory, a discrepancy between the ideal self and the actual self
leads to depression, whereas a discrepancy between the ought self
and the actual self leads to anxiety (e.g., Higgins 1987, 1999). As
attention to one’s ideal-self guide involves private self-focus and
attention to one’s ought-self guide involves public self-focus, a
The strong association be-
strong relationship between private self-focus and depression and
between public self-focus and anxiety is not surprising.
The relationship between depression and public self-focus and
anxiety and private self-focus.
tween depression and public self-focus and the smaller relationship
between overall anxiety and private self-focus may seem incon-
sistent with our original prediction of the specificity of the rela-
tionship between affect and SFA. Several measurement factors as
well as diagnostic and classification issues may contribute to the
existence of these relationships. First, self-report measures of
depression and anxiety often include very similar items. Measures
such as the BDI (Beck, 1967) have often been described as
nonspecific and have been associated with a wide range of patho-
logical conditions, particularly in college student samples (e.g.,
Feldman, 1993; Gotlib, 1984; Kendall, Hollon, Beck, Hammen, &
Ingram, 1987; Kendall & Watson, 1989; D. Watson, Clark, &
Harkness, 1994). This nonspecificity implies that individuals who
score high on a nonspecific depression measure are likely to
experience (and report on this measure) symptoms of anxiety and
that individuals who score high on an anxiety measure may actu-
ally report symptoms of depression that overlap with their anxiety
symptoms. Thus, because these self-report measures are not mea-
suring “pure” depression and anxiety, the relationship between
depression and public SFA and between anxiety and private SFA
may be attributed to “contamination” that is due to shared item
Second, shared item content is a direct result of symptom
co-occurrence. The key symptoms that define both depression and
anxiety disorders often co-occur. Although all anxiety and mood
disorders have unique symptoms, they also share many symptoms.
In fact, the current diagnostic nosology (i.e., DSM–IV) defines
depressive and anxiety disorders using shared diagnostic criteria.
For example, depression and generalized anxiety disorders have a
high symptom overlap. The diagnostic criteria for both disorders
include such symptoms as irritability, difficulty concentrating, and
sleep disturbance. Thus, the correlations between anxiety and
private SFA and depression and public SFA may in fact be due to
shared depression–anxiety variance rather than a real relationship
between these constructs. This seems particularly true for the
relationship between anxiety and private self-focus. Our examina-
tion of the relationship between private self-focus and types of
anxiety revealed that whereas generalized anxiety was strongly
related to private self-focus, social anxiety was unrelated to private
self-focus. Thus, the overall relationship between private self-
focus and anxiety was driven by generalized anxiety. This finding
is consistent with the growing evidence that generalized anxiety
disorder is more closely linked to depression than to other anxiety
disorders and that it is genetically indistinguishable from depres-
sion (Kendler, 1996; Kendler et al., 1995; Mineka, Watson, &
The difference in magnitude of the relationship between depres-
sion and public self-focus and anxiety and private self-focus.
mentioned earlier, the relationship between depression and public
self-focus was significantly stronger than the relationship between
overall anxiety and private self-focus. This discrepancy may be
explained by comorbidity patterns of depressive and anxiety dis-
orders. Numerous clinical and epidemiological studies consistently
point to a large comorbidity between depression and anxiety (for a
The moderate relationship be-
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
review, see Mineka et al., 1998). Generally, among patients diag-
nosed with depression, there is a high likelihood of a lifetime
diagnosis of any anxiety disorder. Similarly, among patients diag-
nosed with an anxiety disorder, there is a high likelihood of a
depressive disorder (for a review, see Clark, 1989).
Thus, the evidence suggests that comorbidity of depression and
anxiety is bidirectional. Despite this bidirectionality, the comor-
bidity between depression and anxiety is not symmetric. Pure
anxiety is more common than is pure depression (e.g., Alloy,
Kelly, Mineka, & Clements, 1990). The rarity of pure depression
relative to pure anxiety might be explained by findings regarding
the sequential relationship of these disorders; both within a single
episode and across the life span, anxiety disorders typically pre-
cede the development of depression (Alloy et al., 1990;
Schatzberg, Samson, Rothschild, Bond, & Regier, 1998). As anx-
iety precedes depression, individuals diagnosed with a mood dis-
order are likely to have already been diagnosed with an anxiety
disorder, leading to the relative rarity of pure depression.
Across the studies examined in this meta-analysis, we found a
moderate effect size for the relationship between depression and
public SFA (but still smaller than that found for the relationships
between private SFA and depression and for public SFA and
anxiety). In contrast, we found a significantly weaker relationship
between overall anxiety and private self-focus (though when ex-
amined separately, generalized anxiety was strongly related to
private self-focus). This pattern of results fits the clinical comor-
bidity data we presented earlier. If anxiety is associated with public
self-focus, then the moderate relationship between depression and
public self-focus can be explained by the fact that depressed
people are often anxious. This relationship may be due to anxiety
symptoms that co-occur with depression. In contrast, as depression
is associated with private self-focus, the weak relationship between
private self-focus and social anxiety can be attributed to the
relative rarity of depressive symptoms that co-occur with an anx-
iety disorder. That is, the effect size for the relationship between
anxiety and private self-focus is smaller because the likelihood of
experiencing depression while being anxious is significantly
smaller than is the reverse.
Studies that examined depression are likely to have assessed
participants who were simultaneously suffering from anxiety
symptoms. Because anxiety is strongly related to public SFA,
participants in these studies would be expected to report high
levels of public self-focus. In contrast, because pure anxiety is
more common than pure depression, studies that examined anxiety
are less likely to have assessed participants who were simulta-
neously suffering from depression. That we found a strong rela-
tionship between generalized anxiety and private self-focus but no
relationship between social anxiety and private self-focus provides
support for this assertion, as recent studies have demonstrated that
generalized anxiety disorder is more commonly comorbid with
depression than is social phobia (Kendler et al., 1995).
Several of the findings in this meta-analysis can
be understood in light of the response style theory (Nolen-
Hoeksema, 1987, 1991). First, we found that rumination was more
strongly related to NA than were other types of SFA. This finding
is not surprising because rumination increases individuals’ access
to negative cognitions about themselves or their environments,
whereas nonruminative self-focus does not necessarily involve
attention to one’s mood and does not constrain one to focus on
Another finding in line with the response style theory is the
relationship between percentage of females in the sample and the
strength of the association between SFA and NA. Higher percent-
ages of females in a sample were related to more positive effect
sizes. Nolen-Hoeksema (1987, 1991) has used response style the-
ory to explain the striking difference in prevalence rate of depres-
sion between men and women. She argued that this gap could be
explained by the different styles typically used by the two genders
in coping with NA. Several studies have shown that in response to
depressed mood, men engage in active behaviors designed to
relieve the negative mood by distraction. Women, on the other
hand, tend to engage in more passive behaviors that are designed
to focus their attention on the negative mood (Kleinke, Staneski, &
Mason, 1982; Nolen-Hoeksema, Larson, & Grayson, 1999). This
coping mechanism of focusing on NA exacerbates the affect
(Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1993). The results of this meta-analysis
suggest that the relationship between self-focus and NA is stronger
for women than it is for men (or for studies with a higher percent-
age of women). That is, these results may indicate that when
women engage in self-focus, they do so in a more maladaptive
manner than when men engage in self-focus. Further research
examining the specific cognitive patterns that men and women
engage in is needed to further illuminate this issue.
Finally, a third finding in line with Nolen-Hoeksema’s (1987,
1991) response style theory was the stronger relationship between
SFA and NA in samples of clinical or subclinical populations.
When considered with previously reported findings, it seems that
SFA is most strongly related to increased negative mood in people
who already experience significant levels of NA. According to the
response style theory, rumination does not necessarily lead to
depression. In a study of depressed and nondepressed participants,
Nolen-Hoeksema and Morrow (1993) demonstrated that rumina-
tion leads to significant mood changes only for depressed but not
for nondepressed participants. This finding may provide some
support for the idea of a cyclical relationship between SFA and
NA. It seems that people who are already distressed may tend to
focus more on themselves. When doing so while experiencing NA,
they are likely to attend to negative aspects of themselves and thus
become more distressed.
Self-Focus as an Individual Difference Trait
On the basis of this meta-analysis, we offer several suggestions
for the measurement of SFA. Many studies reviewed in this
meta-analysis used the SCS or a modified version of it as a
measure of SFA (89 effect sizes out of 226 were computed for the
SCS). Although the SCS is one of the only scales to make the
distinction between private and public SFA, there are several
significant problems associated with its use. The SCS has rela-
tively low reliability (alphas range from about .73 to .84), and it
does not assess the valence of the self-focus or contextual factors.
The relationships among the subscales of the SCS are already well
established, as are the correlations between this scale and common
NA measures (e.g., BDI). Thus, we use this opportunity to suggest
MOR AND WINQUIST
researchers turn to developing alternative measurement tools with
high reliability and validity rather than replicate these well-
Several alternative measures of self-focus do assess factors
neglected by the SCS. On the basis of our findings, we recommend
using measures such as thought-listing tasks (e.g., Sedikides,
1992b), essays, diaries, or interviews (e.g., Nolen-Hoeksema,
McBride, & Larson, 1997; Wood, Saltzberg, Neale, Stone, &
Rachmiel, 1990). These measures examine a specific type of
self-focus (e.g., the Rumination scale; Nolen-Hoeksema et al.,
1993) and allow the researcher to code for valence, domain, and
Self-Focus as a Manipulated State
Some studies reviewed in this meta-analysis used experimental
designs in which SFA was manipulated in one of several ways.
Unfortunately, the majority of studies that manipulated self-focus
failed to report manipulation checks that would specify the quality
of the manipulations used. The effect sizes associated with some of
the manipulations were relatively small. This may be a result of
using ineffective manipulations. Many studies used the mirror
manipulation, which yields relatively small effect sizes. This may
be the result of being ineffective in inducing self-focus or being
effective in inducing self-focus, but inducing self-focus that is
irrelevant to the predicted affective consequence. Unfortunately,
there were not consistent data on the effectiveness of the manip-
ulations, and thus these options could not be further explored.
As we outlined above, different theories have presented com-
peting predictions regarding the causal direction of the relationship
between SFA and NA. In this meta-analysis, we attempted to shed
some light on this question by contrasting studies in which SFA
was manipulated with those in which NA was manipulated. Un-
fortunately, only a small group of studies in which NA was
manipulated were located for inclusion in this meta-analysis. As a
result, inferences regarding the direction of causality must be made
with caution. That said, studies that manipulated NA did not differ
from studies that manipulated SFA in their mean effect sizes. This
finding suggests the coexistence of two reciprocal causal path-
ways. Over time, a cyclical relationship is likely to unfold in which
self-focus leads to NA which in turn leads to more self-focus. This
relationship may also begin with the experience of NA.
A limitation of the comparison of studies that manipulate self-
focus and those that manipulate NA is that conclusions regarding
the causal relationship between these variables is only applicable
to negative mood but not to psychological disorders. More studies
that examine the relationship of self-focus and NA over time are
needed to explore this cyclical pattern. One promising direction
may be a longitudinal examination (e.g., diary studies) of the
reciprocal relationship between SFA and NA. Such an approach
may also afford an examination of depression and anxiety in
addition to negative mood.
Although this meta-analysis has provided a useful summary of
a wide range of data from a number of different studies, it is
important to note its limitations. First, several studies that exam-
ined the relationship between SFA and NA did so through a
multiple regression design. These studies cannot be included in a
meta-analytic study. However, this group of studies represented a
small minority of the studies, and thus its absence from this
meta-analysis does not seem to strongly influence our overview of
Second, many of the studies in this literature used correlational
designs, which are mute with regard to the exact processes that
underlie the relationship between self-focus and NA. More fre-
quent use of experimental designs would allow better examination
of the causal links between SFA and affective, cognitive, and
behavioral antecedents and consequences of self-focus.
Third, the small number of studies that examined complex
interactive effects on the relationship between various manifesta-
tions of self-focus and NA limited our ability to include these
important effects in our analyses or to draw firm conclusions
regarding effects that were included in the analyses despite the
small number of studies on which they were based. For example,
although we were able to examine the overall effects of context
(self-focus following positive vs. negative events) on the relation-
ship between self-focus and NA, we were unable to further specify
whether these contextual factors have differential effects based on
the population, the focus of self attention (e.g., private vs. public),
or the form of NA involved.
Fourth, in this meta-analysis we chose to focus on the relation-
ship between SFA and NA. However, there is some evidence that
SFA is related to intensification of affective states in general
(including positive affect; see, e.g., Salovey, 1992). Only a handful
of studies have examined the relationship of SFA and positive
affect, and the results are inconsistent (Sedikides, 1992b; Wood,
Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990). Future investigations should con-
trast the unique relationship between NA and SFA with a general
affect intensification effect of SFA.
This meta-analysis did not address the relationship between
SFA and other cognitive factors related to NA (e.g., attribution,
memory, and judgment). Clearly, these are important venues for
future research, but they were beyond the scope of this analysis.
Finally, the vast majority of the studies included in this meta-
analysis were conducted in the United States. Only a handful of
studies examined the relationship between SFA and NA in non-
Western societies. For the most part, these studies measured SFA
using a translation of the SCS (except for Sakamoto, 1998). Recent
investigations of cultural differences in self-perceptions (Kitayama
& Markus, 1999) have noted that in Asian cultures, individuals
often respond critically to themselves. As a consequence, in these
cultures, the process of SFA may relate differently to affective
experience. The study of SFA should be broadened to include
Conclusions and Future Directions
The main finding of this analysis is that SFA should not be
described or understood as a unitary construct. SFA has been used
as a general term for focusing on various aspects of the self in a
range of contexts. For instance, focusing on public aspects of the
self was related to different types of NA (depression and anxiety),
whereas focusing on private aspects of the self was found to be
SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION AND NEGATIVE AFFECT
relatively unrelated to anxiety. Another major finding of this
synthesis is that in certain contexts, self-focus was not associated
with NA. We have shown that focus on positive aspects of the self
usually carries a different affective implication than does focus on
negative aspects of the self. Whereas focusing on negative self-
aspects is associated with increased NA, focusing on positive
self-aspects is related to a decrease in NA. Similarly, the affective
implications of self-focus also depend on the specific context in
which people engage in self-focus. Focusing on oneself after a
failure experience is associated with significantly different affec-
tive responses than is focusing on oneself after a success. Consis-
tent with the valence and context effects is the finding that SFA
constitutes quite divergent processes when carried out by different
populations (e.g., clinical vs. nonclinical, women vs. men). Clin-
ically depressed or anxious individuals are more adversely affected
by SFA. Similarly, women are also more adversely affected by
SFA than are men, a difference that is probably due to the tendency
of women to engage in ruminative SFA.
One of the primary benefits of a systematic review of this sort
is its ability to point out less-studied “cells” in the larger design of
the reviewed domain, subsequently highlighting worthwhile ven-
ues for further research. One such venue includes a thorough
examination of the relationship between self-focus and positive
affect. For instance, under some conditions self-focus may pro-
mote a better understanding of the self or a better articulation of
self-schemata (e.g., Nasby, 1989). An improved grasp of this
relationship would contribute to the understanding of the specific-
ity of particular types of self-focus to NA.
An additional goal should be achieving a better understanding of
the specificity of self-focus to NA, an understanding that can be
obtained in several ways. First, we believe future research should
involve a more complete examination of the conditions under
which self-focus is maladaptive. Although it is known that focus
on oneself after a negative event is maladaptive, other aspects of
the context such as controllability and duration of precipitating
events, as well as the interaction of these conditions, should be
explored. Second, the paucity of studies investigating the relation-
ship between public self-focus and depression limits conclusions
regarding the specificity of private and public self-focus to depres-
sion and anxiety. Thus, we hope to see a more thorough evaluation
of this relationship. Third, a large number of the studies reviewed
herein failed to distinguish between comorbid depression and
anxiety, which makes it difficult to examine the specificity of the
relationship between types of SFA and NA. We hope that future
researchers will use measures better suited to distinguish between
the unique and the shared components of depression and anxiety
(e.g., Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire; P. J. Watson,
Milliron, & Morris, 1995). A fourth worthwhile venue for further
exploration concerns other cognitive processes that may mediate
the relationship between self-focus and NA. For example, self-
focus has been related to a depressive and maladaptive attribu-
tional style (e.g., J. Greenberg et al., 1992). The relationship
between various types of self-focus and these cognitive processes
that are characteristic of NA should be examined.
As we indicated earlier, our results strongly support an exami-
nation of SFA as a crucial component of self-regulatory processes.
This venue for future research, namely, the relationship between
the SFA process on the one hand and other components of the
self-regulatory process on the other, has received only limited
attention. Other relevant components of the self-regulatory process
may include activities directed toward discrepancy reduction, eval-
uation of the rate of progress, and evaluation of the likelihood of
discrepancy reduction. Examination of the reciprocal relationship
between self-focus and NA over time may promote the under-
standing of the role of SFA in self-regulation.
Finally, despite the strong interest of many researchers in the
role SFA plays in psychopathology, only a small minority of the
studies in this meta-analysis actually examined diagnosable de-
pression and anxiety conditions. It is unfortunate that conclusions
are made about clinical populations, considering the scarcity of
research actually using clinical populations. Thus, another venue
for future research should be the systematic examination of the
SFA process within affective psychopathology, as well as a careful
examination of the boundary conditions (e.g., context, valence, and
subtype of SFA) for the role of SFA in these disorders.
We embarked on this systematic review with the hope of clar-
ifying an important psychological phenomenon that lies at the
seam of social cognition, personality psychology, and psychopa-
thology. Although different readers may focus more of their at-
tention on particular aspects of this review and less on others, our
intention has been to provide both a systematic review and a
theoretical synthesis. SFA, both as a state and as a process, is a key
component of cognitive models of personality and psychopathol-
ogy. Our hope is that, with this review, we not only serve those
seeking an understanding of self-focus and its implications but also
contribute to the continued development of the social–cognitive
perspective on normal and abnormal functioning.
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Received October 27, 2000
Revision received January 7, 2002
Accepted January 22, 2002 ?
MOR AND WINQUIST