Social anxiety involves worry or fear that you will be judged, embarrassed, or humiliated in social situations and often leads to people avoiding or feeling distress in certain social environments. At the same time, research shows that social anxiety is not just how an individual consciously experiences or reacts to a scenario — it can also affect automatic functions, those that operate outside our conscious awareness. For example, how individuals view things or people in a given environment may operate differently in people with social anxiety. Understanding differences in how people process visual images, particularly those involving facial expressions, can provide insight into the kinds of information individuals with social anxiety are gathering from their environment.
Using eye-tracking technologies, researchers can examine the quality and frequency of eye movements when individuals are viewing images of faces. In an eye-tracking study, participants wear a device that detects the position of the pupils and the reflection in the cornea in both eyes simultaneously. This allows researchers to measure things like what people first look at or how long they focus on different aspects of a visual scene.
A study conducted by Liang, Tsai, and Hsu (2017) used eye-tracking technology to examine how individuals with social anxiety engage with perceived social threats, in this case, images of angry faces. Some past evidence suggests that people with social anxiety will initially focus on unpleasant stimuli and then move attention away from those threats, known as the vigilance-avoidance hypothesis. Other research suggests there is delayed disengagement, meaning that people with social anxiety take longer to turn their attention away from threatening stimuli than those without social anxiety. To explore these possibilities, the researchers had participants with and without social anxiety look at an image containing five faces with a happy, angry, sad, and neutral facial expression. The participants were instructed to look at the image while wearing an eye-tracker for 5, 10, or 15 seconds.
This study determined that most people, regardless of whether they had social anxiety or not, look at angry faces first. However, the participants with social anxiety fixated on the angry faces more often and for longer. Consequently, those with social anxiety may have difficulty disengaging from angry faces, as it took them longer to shift their attention away from the angry facial expression. The results suggest that people without social anxiety engage with the perception of negative individuals less than those with social anxiety. By fixating less on the angry face, they may be able to see other possibilities and interpretations of a situation. They can balance their own mood by this form of self-regulating.
The relationship between social anxiety and attention to faces is far from clear, as other eye tracking research suggests that in certain conditions people with social anxiety direct their attention away from emotional facial expressions (Mansell, Clark, Ehlers & Chen, 1999). Taylor, Kraines, Grant, and Wells (2019) suggested that one factor that may affect this relationship is excessive reassurance-seeking. Excessive reassurance-seeking may cause individuals to orient attention to positive faces quickly after engaging with threatening ones. To test this hypothesis, they conducted another experimental study using eye-tracking technology with individuals who have social anxiety. However, their experiment focused on how individuals orient their attention back and forth between pleasant and threatening stimuli.
Participants were instructed to view images of different emotional faces, formatted like a photo album, and participants were encouraged to flip through at their own pace. Each page contained an angry, disgusted, happy, neutral, and sad face. In addition to this, participants completed two scales, one measuring social anxiety and one measuring participants’ tendency to seek reassurance in their personal relationships, such as the tendency to ask loved ones if they really care about you. The researchers found that although there was no direct relationship between social anxiety symptoms and how long people fixated on faces exhibiting disgust, there was an indirect relationship when one considered the tendency to seek reassurance, with individuals with social anxiety high in reassurance-seeking behavior fixating less on faces of disgust and orienting more quickly to happy faces. Taylor et. al (2019) noted two possible reasons for this behavior. It could be an avoidance of threatening feedback or, alternatively, a way of seeking reassurance. These behaviors can be successful ways to feel comfortable or safe in an anxiety-provoking situation.
Together, the results from these studies suggest that individuals with social anxiety show an irregular attentional pattern when they are viewing emotional faces. While some individuals with social anxiety may have a harder time disengaging from threat information, others, who seek excessive reassurance, may be more likely to orient towards positive facial expressions.
People do not consciously choose where their eyes move most of the time. This lack of cognitive control can hinder the ability of people to see alternatives. Where an individual without social anxiety might recognize that the angry person in the room may not necessarily be angry at them by looking for other cues, somebody with social anxiety may not be able to disengage or orient to additional information. Their fixation prevents them from seeing the whole picture.
Liang, C., Tsai, J., Hsu, W. (2017). Sustained visual attention for competing emotional stimuli in social anxiety: An eye tracking study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 54, 178-185. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2016.08.009
Mansell, W., Clark, D. M., Ehlers, A. &, Chen, Y. P. (1999) Social anxiety and attention away from emotional faces. Cognition and Emotion, 13, 673-690. https://doi.org/10.1080/026999399379032
Taylor, D., Kraines, M., Grant, D., Wells, T. (2019). The role of excessive reassurance seeking: An eye tracking study of the indirect effect of social anxiety symptoms on attention bias. Psychiatry Research, 274, 220-227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2019.02.039