Trait Anxiety Diminishes Perceptions of Trustworthiness

In the study on anxiety, trait and state anxiety are seen as two separate constructs and largely different than other anxieties and phobias like social phobia. Trait anxiety refers to a persistent, stable emotional state of heightened anxiety. State anxiety refers to a contextual anxiety, related often to a particular event, situation, or person.

Although it has been well established that anxiety increases perception of threat and fear, it is less clear whether state and trait anxiety affect judgment and perceptions of trustworthiness and approachability. People with anxiety tend to have a bias toward negative perceptions, especially for facial expressions. This distorted appraisal causes them to avoid people who they believe are untrustworthy or unapproachable.

In an effort to gain more insight how anxiety affects perceptions of trustworthiness and approachability, and to see if trait and state anxiety affect these judgments uniquely, Megan L. Willis of the School of Psychology at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney recently conducted a study involving 82 participants with anxiety. The participants were presented with pictures of faces and were instructed to determine how trustworthy or approachable these faces were. Willis assessed the participants for state and trait anxiety prior to the experiment and then compared their answers to their anxiety scores.

She found that trait anxiety, and not state anxiety, had a significant impact on judgment. In particular, the individuals with high trait anxiety assessed the faces as less trustworthy than did the individuals with low levels of trait anxiety or state anxiety. However, there were no clear differences in approachability based on the appraisals of the participants. In other words, trait anxiety was related to judgments of untrustworthiness, but not unapproachability. State anxiety was unrelated to negative judgments altogether.

These results highlight the importance of examining trustworthiness appraisals in people with trait anxiety. Doing so could help illuminate avoidance and fear-based behaviors. Willis added, “We propose that trait anxiety may be an important variable to control for in future studies assessing the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying trustworthiness.”

Willis, M.L., Dodd, H.F., Palermo, R. (2013). The relationship between anxiety and the social judgements of approachability and trustworthiness. PLoS ONE 8(10): e76825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076825

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  • Walker y

    Walker y

    October 28th, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    I just cannot imagine not only living in this highly anxious state but also having this pervasive feeling that the people around me can’t be trusted.

  • Peyton


    October 29th, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    It’s disturbing that those who have train anxiety are probably those who could most use having someone reliable and trustworthy in their lives, and yet given their issues with being able to perceive this in someone, they could be shutting out those who could really be there to help them and stand by them when they most need someone like that.

  • gia o

    gia o

    October 30th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    There are different levels of anxiety? I didn’t know that until reading this so I apprecaite now having a greater understan ding.

  • chris h

    chris h

    May 7th, 2015 at 12:59 PM


    You have no idea how correct you are, believe me…

    Problem is getting that person to see it, creates a bigger problem, you become the enemy

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