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OBJECTIVE: Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a serious psychiatric illness associated with significant medical and psychiatric comorbidity and impairment. Theoretical models of AN and self-report studies suggest that negative self-evaluation (i.e., low self-esteem) is related to the development and maintenance of AN. The goal of this study was to extend findings from self-report methodology using a neurocognitive task that probes self-evaluation implicitly and explicitly. METHOD: We compared female adolescent and adult patients with AN (n = 35) and healthy controls (HC, n = 38) on explicit (i.e., endorsement of words as self-relevant), implicit (recall, recognition, reaction time), and composite (i.e., valence index, bias score, drift rates) indices of self-evaluation. We applied a drift-diffusion model to compute the drift rates, reflecting participants' decision-making process as to whether words were self-relevant. The association between self-evaluation indices and eating disorder severity was examined. RESULTS: There were significant Group × Condition interaction effects for all explicit and implicit measures (all p's ≤ .01), where the AN group endorsed, recalled, and recognized more negative relative to positive words than HC. The AN group had more negative valence index and bias scores, and slower drift rate away from negative words, reflecting more negative self-evaluation. The finding for recall was attenuated when individuals with depression were excluded. Measures of self-evaluation bias were not related to eating disorder severity. DISCUSSION: Using a neurocognitive approach that includes explicit and implicit indices of bias, results suggest that patients with AN have more negative self-evaluation. Due to the cross-sectional design, additional studies are needed to further evaluate directionality. PUBLIC SIGNIFICANCE: Negative self-evaluation/low self-esteem is thought to contribute to eating disorder symptoms. Findings of this study using a neurocognitive task to probe self-evaluation suggested that individuals with anorexia nervosa have more negative self-evaluation, reflected by endorsing and remembering more negative (than positive) words compared to healthy controls, and doing so faster. Targeting the construct of negative self-evaluation in treatment of AN may be warranted.

Original publication




Journal article


Int J Eat Disord

Publication Date



anorexia nervosa, drift-diffusion model, eating disorder, processing bias, self-esteem, self-evaluation, self-referential encoding task, self-referential processing