How Social Anxiety and Attention Bias Affect Focus

Numerous studies have shown that people who have social anxiety or phobia have an attention bias toward angry or threatening faces. When exposed to happy, neutral, or threatening faces, they will invariably shift their gaze and sustain it longer toward faces that induce fear and threat. It is critical to understand which factors, such as threat bias, contribute to the onset of symptoms. But it is equally important to identify the consequences of such behaviors. Matthias J. Wieser of the Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention at the University of Florida recently conducted study to determine the cost of attention bias in individuals with social anxiety.

Wieser recruited 34 student participants, half of whom were highly anxious and half of whom had moderate social anxiety. He presented the participants with happy, neutral, or angry faces while simultaneously overlapping the facial cues with a task that demanded cognitive resources. The goal was to determine if the participants high in anxiety would perform better or worse on the change-detection task as a result of attention bias. Wieser found that the high social anxiety participants were less able to detect changes in the cues than the less anxious individuals. The highly anxious group also shifted their attention to angry faces more quickly than their peers, and they held their attention there longer. In contrast, the low-anxiety group did not focus as quickly, or as long, on any of the faces. But when they did, they were more likely to focus on happy and neutral faces than angry ones.

These findings show that attention bias comes at a cost. In particular, individuals who are high in social anxiety may find themselves unable to focus on processing other relevant social cues because of their hyper-arousal to threatening stimuli. This is especially evident when both tasks, the facial stimuli and a secondary task, are present in a single field of vision, as was demonstrated in this study. Wieser also points out that these results show that high and low levels of anxiety are related to some bias. “Notably, the valence of facial cues interacts with social anxiety: Happy expressions attract visual attention in nonsymptomatic individuals, whereas significant interpersonal apprehension is associated with bias to angry displays,” he said. Wieser hopes interventions and treatments designed to address social anxiety can benefit from these results and the additional evidence of attention resource depletion presented here.

Wieser, Matthias J., Lisa M. McTeague, and Andreas Keil. Competition effects of threatening faces in social anxiety. Emotion 12.5 (2012): 1050-060. Print.

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  • dalia


    December 7th, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    so the anxious individuals are missing out on a lot of information because they are paying attention to does this play out in the real world?are they less observant of things due to their bias and anxiety?do they continue to ‘look for’ threats and miss on on key information in the process?I guess they do.can anybody confirm this with scientific backing?

  • Randall


    December 8th, 2012 at 4:29 AM

    On the days where I am them most anxious and upset, you are right dalia, it feels like I lose entire days of my life in this whirl of confusion!

  • Candy


    December 9th, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    I question the underlying validity of any research based on college students (a narrow representation of adult population–very young with limited work & life experiences) and extrapolated onto the population at large.

  • erik


    December 9th, 2012 at 9:35 PM

    I’m guessing this bias also makes them more paranoid and socially puts them at a disadvantage..what a pity..sad how the chain link spoils so many things for these people..!

  • Sloane


    December 10th, 2012 at 4:09 AM

    I wish that I was better at this, but I know that I naturally gravitate more toward people when I see that they have a nice and pleasant appearance over those who already look stressed. Believe me, I don’t need anyone else to make me any more stressed than I already am, so that’s why I tend to shy away form those who appear to be those types.

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