p>Recent cognitive models propose a variety of information processing biases considered to play a key role in the etiology and maintenance of social phobia (e.g. Clark and Wells, 1995; Rapee and Heimberg, 1997). The present thesis examined high and low socially anxious individuals’ biases in attention, appraisal, interpretation and judgement, when processing external social cues (facial expressions).
Experiments 1 and 2 monitored eye-movements to pictures of faces and objects in high socially anxious and low socially anxious individuals. Under no-stress conditions (Experiment 1), high socially anxious individuals initially directed their gaze towards neutral faces, relative to objects, more often than low anxious individuals. However, under social-evaluative stress (Experiment 2), high socially anxious individuals showed reduced biases in initial orienting and maintenance of gaze on faces (cf. objects), compared with the low anxious participants. High socially anxious individuals were also relatively quicker to look at emotional faces than neutral faces, but looked at emotional faces for less time, compared with low socially anxious individuals.
In a third experiment (Experiment 3, task 1), participants’ general tendency initially to orient towards and maintain attention for longer on a variety of social cues (angry, happy and neutral faces) relative to non-social cues (objects) was unaffected by social anxiety group. However, reduced maintenance of attention on face cues in general, relative to non-social cues was demonstrated in high compared to low socially anxious individuals in Experiment 4. Results from a modified visual probe task (Experiment 5 task 1) provided no evidence of selective attention in either social anxiety group.
In Experiments 3 and 4, explicit (valence and arousal ratings) and implicit (EAST, startle magnitude, skin conductance) measures of stimulus appraisal for social relative to non-social cues were unaffected by social anxiety group (Exp. 3,4). However, high socially anxious individuals negatively rated and produced greater startle amplitude in response to all face/object cues compared to low anxious individuals in Experiment 4.
Using a modified illusory correlation paradigm (Experiment 5, task 2), low socially anxious individuals demonstrated a relatively persistent tendency to over-associate positive social cues with pleasant outcomes. High socially anxious lacked this positive bias, and instead were biased in selectively recalled negative social cues. Finally, in a novel emotion classification paradigm (Experiment 5, task 3), high socially anxious individuals tended to interpret ambiguous (computer manipulated) emotional facial expressions in a negative fashion.
Results provide evidence of biases in various aspects of processing in social anxiety: reduced attention to external social cues; enhanced detection and recall of negative social cues; and negative inferential processes. These findings provide some support for recent cognitive models that emphasise the role of these biases in maintaining the concerns of individuals with social phobia.</p