Social Anxiety and Attentional Bias Study
Statement of the Problem:
Cognitive models of anxiety propose that patients with anxiety disorders selectively attend to threat cues. Such an attentional bias is considered to lead to an increased perception of danger accompanied by more frequent anxiety. In case of individuals suffering from social phobia, two opposite predictions could be made regarding their attentional deployment in response to facial stimuli, which are one of representative threats to this group of people. First, in terms of cognitive theory, social phobics would closely monitor the facial expression of others for signs of disapproval or rejection, and thus show an attentional bias to negative facial expressions (see Rapee & Heimberg, 1997). Facial expressions are a major source of information about the reaction of others in a social interaction. Thus, facial stimuli are a quite relevant threat to social phobics. On the other hand, clinical observations suggest that social phobics avoid looking at other people. Moreover, one of the goals pursued by social skills training is to help them increase eye contact. Based on this position, one would predict the opposite attentional bias, namely that social phobics will show less attention to facial expressions of others than controls when anxious.
There have been mixed findings from several investigations that examined attentional biases with regard to facial stimuli. Clark and Yuen (1998) found that students who scored high on the Fear of Negative Evaluation (FNE) Scale directed their attention away from negative (to neutral) faces when threatened to give a speech, whereas low FNE subjects did not selectively attend to either neutral or negative faces. In contrast, Bradley et al. (1997), who did not threaten participants with a speech, did not find any effects of FNE on attention to threatening faces. Mansell, Clark, Ehlers, and Chen (1999) have recently undertaken such a direct comparison of high and low socially anxious students. Participants were given either a social threat instruction or a no-threat instruction before doing the task. Results revealed that high social anxiety participants directed their attention away from negative faces, as well as from positive faces, when threatened. In contrast, there were no group differences in the no-threat condition, corresponding to the results of Bradley et al., (1997). Chen, Ehlers, Clark, and Mansell used the modified dot probe paradigm of Mansell et all (1999) and reported that twenty patients with social phobia were faster in identifying the probe when it occurred in the location of the household objects, regardless of whether the facial expressions were positive, neutral, or negative. In contrast, controls did not exhibit an attentional preference. These findings suggest that social phobics tend to divert their attention away from external social cues, which was conveyed through facial stimuli.
This study will further investigate attentional biases manifested by individuals high in social anxiety, borrowing a perceptual experiment paradigm called “Inattentional blindness” (Mack & Rock, 1999).
Specific Aims :
This study is investigating the nature of attentional bias in people displaying high vs. low levels of social anxiety using the inattentional blindness paradigm.
Males and females age 18-65 years of age are invited to participate in a study aimed at examining the relationship between social anxiety and attentional bias.
Project Coordinator/Contact Person:
Contact Phone number: 512-471-3722
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