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"Visual avoidance of faces in socially anxious individuals" nominated for PhD publication award

The Developmental and Educational Psychology unit nominated Jiemiao Chen's paper "Visual avoidance of faces in socially anxious individuals. The moderating effect of type of social situation" for the PhD publication award 2021.

Context specific avoidance of faces

The paper, that was published in Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, aims to clarify a paradox in the literature. Theoretical models of social anxiety disorder and observations by clinicians strongly suggest that socially anxious people avoid making eye-contact. Empirical findings, however, are mixed, in particular for people who report high levels of social anxiety, but do not have a diagnosis.  

The research question is original, because it moves beyond providing evidence for one side of the argument to investigating a possible moderator. Jiemiao Chen proposed and tested the novel hypothesis that the effect of social anxiety on gaze behavior is context specific: high socially anxious people specifically avoid looking at other people’s faces in situations that may involve social evaluation.

The study includes a social-evaluative and a non-evaluative situation created with the exact same visual stimuli: participants a) watched and b) presented in front of the same prerecorded audience (in counterbalanced order). The within-subjects comparison of carefully controlled conditions provides strong support for the hypothesis: socially anxious individuals only avoided looking at the faces of the audienc members while they were giving a presentation.

In addition to clarifying the paradox, the paper makes a practical contribution to the field by showing that infrequently looking at faces in social-evaluative situations is an indicator of social anxiety. This may be useful for early identification of people at risk for social anxiety disorder.

Chen, J., Van den Bos, E., Velthuizen, S. L. M., & Westenberg, P. M. (2021). Visual avoidance of faces in socially anxious individuals. The moderating effect of type of social situation. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 12(1), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1177/2043808721989628

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