Social Safety Theory


Social Safety Theory hypothesizes that developing and maintaining friendly social bonds is a fundamental organizing principle of human behavior and that threats to social safety are a critical feature of psychological stressors that increase risk for disease. Central to this formulation is the fact that the human brain and immune system are principally designed to keep the body biologically safe, which they do by continually monitoring and responding to social, physical, and microbial threats in the environment. Because situations involving social conflict, isolation, devaluation, rejection, and exclusion historically increased risk for physical injury and infection, anticipatory neural–immune reactivity to social threat was likely highly conserved. This neurocognitive and immunologic ability for humans to symbolically represent and respond to potentially dangerous social situations is ultimately critical for survival. When sustained, however, this multilevel biological threat response can increase individuals’ risk for several inflammation-related disease conditions that dominate present-day morbidity and mortality.

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Social Safety Journal Club!

Back by popular demand, the Social Safety Journal Club! Read the article and book an online lab/journal club meeting with Dr. Slavich. Journal clubs are 50 minutes and include a 10-minute overview of Social Safety Theory followed by 40 minutes of Q&A and discussion! Interesting in discussing or pursuing these ideas? To setup a Journal Club time, just email us!

Strategies for Promoting Social Safety & Reducing Social Threat

Do you have an intervention that should be added to the list below? Great! Please send it to us using the lab email address on the Contact Page!

Intervention Possible mechanism of action Example reference(s)
Cognitive behavior therapy Increase social engagement and reduce social threat–related thoughts and beliefs Clark & Beck 1999, Hofmann & Otto 2017, Shields et al. 2020
Acceptance and commitment therapy Develop cognitive flexibility to notice, accept, and embrace past social threats Hayes et al. 2009
Mindfulness meditation Bring awareness to the present, which is typically absent of social threat Creswell et al. 2014
Loving-kindness and compassion meditation Enhance positive emotional states of kindness and compassion toward others Hofmann et al. 2011
Forgiveness therapy Reduce negative thoughts and emotions induced by offenders/aggressors Akhtar & Barlow 2018, Worthington 2013
Self-distancing Reduce the negativity of past aversive events by increasing distance/perspective Kross & Ayduk 2017
Stress mind-set interventions View social threat as an enhancing rather than debilitating experience Crum et al. 2017
Acetaminophen administration Reduce neurobiological signaling that subserves social pain and rejection DeWall et al. 2010, Slavich et al. 2019
Safety learning Remodel neural networks underlying anxiety, fear, and threat Meyer et al. 2019
Nurturant parenting training Strengthen familial relationships Miller et al. 2014
Family cohesion training Promote social caring, interpersonal connection, and family cohesion King et al. 2019
Social belonging interventions Increase social connection, cohesion, belonging, affiliation, and inclusion; reappraise social cues and adversity Allen et al. 2016, Borman et al. 2019, Patton et al. 2006
Mere belonging interventions Enhance social connection and belonging with socially shared goals Walton & Cohen 2011
Identity safety interventions Foster sense that one’s identity and values are accepted and welcome Goyer et al. 2019
Reduce biasDecrease instances of prejudice and discriminationEberhardt 2019
Prevent bullyingReduce experiences of social aggression and exclusionWilliams & Nida 2014
Promote social connectionDecrease loneliness and increase social interaction and belongingHolt-Lunstad et al. 2017
Build empathyPromote social connection, caring, and empathy toward othersZaki 2019


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Allen KA, Vella-Brodrick D, Waters L. 2016. Fostering school belonging in secondary schools using a socio-ecological framework. Educ. Dev. Psychol. 33:97–121

Borman GD, Rozek CS, Pyne J, Hanselman P. 2019. Reappraising academic and social adversity improves middle school students’ academic achievement, behavior, and well-being. PNAS 116:16286–91

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Creswell JD, Pacilio LE, Lindsay EK, Brown KW. 2014. Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 44:1–12

Crum AJ, Akinola M, Martin A, Fath S. 2017. The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety Stress Coping 30:379–95

DeWall CN, MacDonald G, Webster GD, Masten CL, Baumeister RF, et al. 2010. Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychol. Sci. 21:931–37

Eberhardt JL. 2019. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. New York: Viking

Goyer JP, Cohen GL, Cook JE, Master A, Apfel N, et al. 2019. Targeted identity safety interventions cause lasting reductions in discipline citations among ethnic-minority boys. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 117:229–59

Hayes SC, Strosahl KD, Wilson KG. 2009. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Washington, DC: Am. Psychol. Assoc.

Hofmann SG, Grossman P, Hinton DE. 2011. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: potential for psychological interventions. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 31:1126–32

Hofmann SG, Otto MW. 2017. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder: Evidence-Based and Disorder-Specific Treatment Techniques. New York: Routledge. 2nd ed.

Holt-Lunstad J, Robles TF, Sbarra DA. 2017. Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States. Am. Psychol. 72:517–30

King CA, Arango A, Kramer A, Busby D, Czyz E, et al. 2019. Association of the youth-nominated support team intervention for suicidal adolescents with 11- to 14-year mortality outcomes: secondary analysis of a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry 76:492–98

Kross E, Ayduk O. 2017. Self-distancing: theory, research, and current directions. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 55:81–136

Meyer HC, Odriozola P, Cohodes EM, Mandell JD, Li A, et al. 2019. Ventral hippocampus interacts with prelimbic cortex during inhibition of threat response via learned safety in both mice and humans. PNAS 116:26970–79

Miller GE, Brody GH, Yu T, Chen E. 2014. A family-oriented psychosocial intervention reduces inflammation in low-SES African American youth. PNAS 111:11287–92

Patton GC, Bond L, Carlin JB, Thomas L, Butler H, et al. 2006. Promoting social inclusion in schools: a group-randomized trial of effects on student health risk behavior and well-being. Am. J. Public Health 96:1582–87

Shields GS, Spahr CM, Slavich GM. 2020. Psychosocial interventions and immune system function: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. JAMA Psychiatry. In press.

Slavich GM, Shields GS, Deal BD, Gregory A, Toussaint LL. 2019. Alleviating social pain: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of forgiveness and acetaminophen. Ann. Behav. Med. 53:1045–54

Walton GM, Cohen GL. 2011. A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science 331:1447–51

Williams KD, Nida SA. 2014. Ostracism and public policy. Policy Insights Behav. Brain Sci. 1:38–45

Worthington EL Jr. 2013. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. New York: Routledge

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