We already know from past research that people with social anxiety seem to have a bias towards negative social signals. For instance, they’re more likely to notice a frown of disapproval than a smile, which of course only fuels their anxiety.
But a lot of this research has been unrealistic, involving static photos of faces and the task of looking out for dots on a computer screen. A new Chinese study has ramped up the realism by asking dozens of participants – some low in social anxiety, some high – to give a three-minute impromptu speech over Skype to an apparently live audience shown onscreen. In fact the audience was made up of actors who’d been recorded earlier and whose facial expressions and body movements were deliberately positive (smiles and nods), negative (frowns and yawns) or neutral.
Writing in Cognition and Emotion, Muyu Lin and her colleagues describe how they tracked their participants’ eye movements as they gave their speeches, recorded their physical anxiety via sweating and heart rate, and how they also asked them to rate how anxious they felt.
The participants with high social anxiety spent more time looking at negative audience members and less time at positive audience members, than did the low anxiety participants. Moreover, the low anxiety participants showed a bias towards spending more time looking at positive audience members than the other people in the audience, while the high anxiety anxiety participants lacked this positive bias. The high anxiety participants reported more anxiety, as you’d expect, and this was shown in the physiological measures, especially heart rate. Finally, the greater their attention to negative audience members, the more anxious the socially anxious participants said they felt.
The researchers said their study is the first ever investigation of “attention allocation patterns in individuals with high and low social anxiety levels under real-life analogue social threat”. They added that if anxious people spend more time looking at bored or disagreeable faces in the audience, this is only going to fuel their fear. By contrast, less anxious people seem to have a healthy bias towards looking at happy, engaged listeners, and this may be something that anxious people could learn through practice or training.