Eye-tracking study suggests that people with social anxiety avoid not only looking at strangers but also their surroundings

A new study published in the journal PLEASE one suggests that social anxiety is characterized by increased avoidance, rather than hypervigilance, in social situations. The naturalistic study followed the participants’ eyes when a stranger entered the room and found that participants with higher social anxiety showed a shorter initial fixation on the stranger and lower visual exploration of the environment.

People with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) experience a persistent fear of social judgment, thereby avoiding social scenarios. While the cognitive processes underlying SAD are complex, researchers are inclined 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 follow-up studies suggest that people with social anxiety tend to look less at others (distraction), and other studies suggest that they pay more attention to others (hypervigilance). Moreover, some researchers have suggested that both biases are at work – with people with social anxiety showing initial, reflexive hypervigilance, but then switching to avoidance as a cognitively driven response.

Study authors Irma Konovalova and her team conducted a follow-up study to assess for environmental avoidance, hypervigilance, and hyperscanning. Remarkably, they designed a naturalistic social task to measure the reactions of participants’ eyes 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 by one, participants sat in a seminar room, were provided with eye-tracking glasses, and completed measures of state anxiety and characteristic social anxiety. The students were told that they were participating in a visual search and that their eye movements would be followed as they completed various visual searches.

In reality, the authors of the study were interested in controlling the participants’ eye movements during an upcoming social scenario in which a stranger was involved. After the first visual search, the researcher either forgot something and stepped out of the room. Shortly afterwards, a Confederate entered the room. By playing the role of another participant, the confederation recognized the participant briefly and sat down to work on their own questionnaires.

The researchers analyzed the eye-tracking data to see if participants with higher social anxiety showed different eye movement patterns.

No relationships were found between the participants’ social anxiety scores and the total amount of time they spent with the confederation, nor the number of fixations on the confederation – in general, both participants had high social fear and low social fear avoid looking at the confederation.

The authors say that this avoidance may be a reflection of a phenomenon called “civic inattention”, in which strangers in the neighborhood avoid inciting each other by recognizing each other’s presence but otherwise detaching. For example, strangers in a confined elevator may politely ignore each other.

Students with higher social anxiety showed shorter initial fixation times to the confederation – they spent less time capturing the face of the confederation when he first entered the room. “We suggest this corresponds to an additional level of avoidance in the lake [socially anxious] participants above the more generic form of civic inattention found in the sample, “said Konovalova and team. The confederation that entered the room was perhaps too conspicuous for participants with social fear to ignore, but if they looked at him, they prefer not to look in his direction.

Finally, participants with social anxiety were found to have 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 general environment. “One possible interpretation of this is that it is higher [social anxiety] participants were primarily concerned with preventing social interaction because of their fear, “said the study’s authors,” and the most effective way to achieve this is to avoid committing any behavior that attracts the confederation’s attention. can pull. “

In contrast to previous laboratory studies, the researchers found no evidence of hypervigilance associated with social anxiety. The researchers say this may suggest that hypervigilance is an “artifact of experimental paradigms” that does not appear in the real world environment. Instead, people with social anxiety seem to use a distinct gaze strategy defined by increased “inhibitory control over your gaze” to curb anxiety and potentially limit social interaction.

The study, “Adults with Higher Social Anxiety Anxiety Demonstrate Avoiding Eye Behavior in a Real Social Institution: A Mobile Eye Follow-Up Study,” was written by Irma Konovalova, Jastine V. Antolin, Helen Bolderston, and Nicola J. Gregory.

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