A new study published in the journal PLOS One suggests that social anxiety is characterized by increased avoidance, rather than hypervigilance, during social situations. The naturalistic study tracked participants’ eye gazes as a stranger entered the room and found that participants with higher social anxiety showed a shorter initial fixation to the stranger and lower visual exploration of the environment.
People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) experience a persistent fear of social judgment, leading them to avoid social scenarios. While the cognitive processes underlying SAD are complex, researchers tend to agree that attentional biases play a central role in the disorder. Interestingly, studies have presented mixed findings related to the nature of these biases.
Some eye-tracking studies suggest that people with social anxiety tend to look less at others (avoidance), and other studies suggest they pay more attention to others (hypervigilance). Moreover, some researchers have proposed that both biases are at work — with people with social anxiety displaying initial, reflexive hypervigilance but then switching to avoidance as a cognitively-driven response.
Study authors Irma Konovalova and her team conducted an eye-tracking study to assess for avoidance, hypervigilance, and hyperscanning of the environment. Notably, they designed a naturalistic social task to measure participants’ eye gaze responses in an authentic social scenario — the first study of its kind.
Thirty students from a university in the United Kingdom participated in the study. One at a time, participants sat in a seminar room, were fitted with eye-tracking glasses, and completed measures of state anxiety and trait social anxiety. The students had been told they were partaking in a visual-search study and that their eye movements would be tracked as they completed several visual search tasks.
In reality, the study authors were interested in monitoring participants’ eye movements during an upcoming social scenario involving a stranger. Following the first visual search task, the researcher pretended to forget something and stepped out of the room. Shortly after, a confederate entered the room. Playing the role of another participant, the confederate briefly acknowledged the participant and sat down to work on their own questionnaires.
The researchers analyzed the eye-tracking data to see whether participants with higher social anxiety showed distinct eye movement patterns.
No relationships were found between participants’ social anxiety scores and the overall amount of time they spent looking at the confederate nor the number of fixations to the confederate — in general, both participants with high social anxiety and low social anxiety avoided looking at the confederate.
The authors say this avoidance may be a reflection of a phenomenon called “civil inattention”, where strangers in close proximity avoid imposing on each other by acknowledging each other’s presence but otherwise disengaging. For example, strangers in a confined elevator might politely ignore each other.
Students with higher social anxiety showed shorter first fixation times to the confederate — they spent less time fixating at the confederate’s face when he first entered the room. “We suggest this equates to an additional level of avoidance in the more [socially anxious] participants over and above the more generic form of civil inattention found across the sample,” Konovalova and team say. The confederate entering the room was perhaps too salient for participants with social anxiety to ignore, but once they looked at him, they preferred not to maintain their gaze in his direction.
Finally, it was found that participants with social anxiety engaged in fewer fixations, fewer saccades, and had a shorter scan path length compared to those with lower social anxiety scores, suggesting “less visual exploration” of the overall environment. “One possible interpretation of this is that the higher [social anxiety] participants were especially intent on avoiding social interaction due to their anxiety,” the authors of the study say, “and the most effective way to achieve this is to avoid committing any behavior that might attract the confederate’s attention.”
Contrary to previous lab studies, the researchers found no evidence of hypervigilance related to social anxiety. The researchers say this may suggest that hypervigilance is an “artefact of experimental paradigms” that does not show up in real-world environments. Instead, people with social anxiety seem to employ a distinct gazing strategy defined by increased “inhibitory control over one’s gaze” in order to curb anxiety and potentially limit social interaction.
The study, “Adults with higher social anxiety show avoidant gaze behaviour in a real-world social setting: A mobile eye tracking study”, was authored by Irma Konovalova, Jastine V. Antolin, Helen Bolderston, and Nicola J. Gregory.