Socially anxious people are interested in others
The idea that socially anxious people avoid eye contact because they are not interested in other people needs to be changed. They take their information from other physical sources, such as people's hands. This is the finding of Leiden psychologist Mariska Kret whose research has been published in Biological Psychology.
Previous research explained the avoidance of eye contact as a sign of lack of interest, which has resulted in the persistent image that people with social anxiety are mainly interested in themselves.
Mariska Kret works in her own lab, CoPAN (Comparative Psychology & Affective Neuroscience), part of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition. She showed a group of socially anxious test subjects and a control group images of people expressing a particular emotion, such as anxiety, anger or happiness. What makes her research different from previous research is that Kret showed images of the whole body, rather than just faces. The hands, for example, can be enormously expressive and can help get a message across. Kret also discovered that although people avoided eye contact in a test situation, they did register the effects of other parts of the body.
According to Kret, it is no surprise that people suffering social anxiety, and particularly those with an anxiety disorder, prefer not to look people in the eye. 'Eyes are something very special,' she explains, 'and not only for people. Animals, too, generally experience direct eye contact as threatening. And we all know that game where you have to stare into one another's eyes for as long as you can. Not many people can keep it up for long.'
People don't find hands as difficult to look at as eyes, but they are at least as expressive. ‘Just look at the role hands play in art,' Kret comments. 'You very often see that in portraits the hands are shown as well as the face.'
The idea that socially anxious people are unable to register emotions well is strange, because no evidence for this has ever been found in the scientific literature. And even more so, brain scans often indicate an overactive amygdala, the area of the brain that is important for processing emotions. Kret believes this may be the result of preconceptions. 'Whether or not they're aware of it, researchers may automatically assume that the clinical population in a study performs worse than the control group.'
Kret advocates taking a fresh look at the existing literature. 'Don't regard eye contact as the only way of registering emotions. It may be that socially anxious people have a much more complete image of a person because they look at the whole body.' She also believes that her research offers interesting links for other fields. Kret: ‘What does this say about people with autism, for example, who we know often avoid making eye contact? This could be an area where I would like to do further research.'
Image: Creazione di Adamo. Fresco door Michelangelo (plm. 1512)