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Gaze Behaviour in Response to Direct and Averted
Dynamic Facial Gaze and the Influence of Social
Anxiety and Stuttering
Gareth V. Walkom
Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Abstract – The position paper analyses research in gaze
behaviour in response to direct and averted dynamic facial gaze
and the influence of social anxiety and stuttering. The paper
shows summaries of research which are both for and against the
statement including studies showing eye gaze is one of the most
important elements in social interactions, indicating the
significance of eye gaze. Each aspect of the topic has been broken
down to show its importance, and why gaze behaviours might be
influenced by social anxiety and stuttering. The author states
gaze behaviour does influence social anxiety and stuttering. The
author makes arguments for and against gaze behaviour having
an influence on social anxiety and stuttering, but ultimately
concludes that it does have an influence.
Keywords - Gaze direction, eye contact, direct gaze, averted
gaze, social anxiety, stutter, stammer, avoidance, behaviour
The purpose of this position paper is to highlight and
support research indicating gaze behaviour in response to direct
and averted dynamic facial gaze and the influence of social
anxiety and stuttering. It has been shown in social interactions
that gaze cues provide information, regulate interaction,
express intimacy, exercise social control, and facilitate goal
setting (Gamer, 2007). Hietanen et al. (2008) states eye gaze is
a powerful stimulus in social interaction. Seeing another person
looking at you is likely to indicate that he or she is attending to
you, whereas another person’s gaze averted away from you
indicates that his or her attention is directed to somewhere else.
(Hietanen et al. 2008). Gaze behaviour is a crucial factor in
defining relationships and in allowing reciprocal influences to
be exchanged as persons relate (Grumet, 1983). Eye contact is
a socially facilitative behaviour that influences how attractive,
attentive, socially competent, credible, and socially dominant
one will be perceived by others (Weeks et al. 2013). Overall
findings from existing studies indicate that normative eye
contact helps navigate social interactions (Langer et al. 2016).
Eye contact is also an important part of stuttering therapy,
as Atkins, (1988) states the development of effective eye
contact needs to be incorporated as a major goal in stuttering
therapy, following the fact stutterers tend to avoid eye contact
when talking to others. Direct gaze may be a fear-relevant
feature for socially anxious individuals in social interactions
(Wieser et al. 2008). However, Wieser et al. (2008) states this
seems not to result in gaze avoidance. This paper examines
current literature to conclude with a position to whether social
anxiety and stuttering influences gaze behaviour in response to
direct and averted facial gaze.
A. Direct and Averted Facial Gaze
People are faster to detect a face with a direct than averted
gaze, and direct gaze facilitates facial gender discrimination
and identity recognition (Helminen et al. 2011). Even new-born
infants (2 days old) can discriminate between straight and
averted gaze suggesting that the ability to detect gaze direction
is innate (Hietanen et al. 2008). Hietanen et al. (2008) also
indicates that direct gaze is more efficiently relative to averted
B. Social Anxiety
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is one of the most common
psychiatric disorders, with a lifetime prevalence of 5% to 13%,
and it frequently causes severe distress and impairment
(Schneier et al. 2011). Schneier et al. (2011) also say that
common measures of severity of social anxiety quantify fear
and avoidance across a variety of social or public situations or
focus on severity of anxious states and interference with
functioning in social interactions (e.g. Social Interaction
Anxiety Scale [SIAS]). The SIAS is a set of 20 characteristics,
where the participant must rate each characteristic as either: not
at all, slightly, moderately, very, or extremely. This measures
SAD by assessing the distress of the participant when meeting
and talking with others. This scale and many other SAD scales
are also used in numerous clinical settings and research.
Stuttering is a speech motor disorder that involves
disruptions to the free flow of speech production. The
condition is understood to be the result of neural processing
deficits, impairing the initiation of speech motor programmes
for the production of syllables (Lowe et al. (2012).
In the diagnosis of individuals who stutter, there are many
different aspects of speech fluency that can be examined, some
examples of stuttering behaviours that may be considered
include: the frequency, duration, types, and severity of
disfluencies (Yaruss, 1998). It has been proven that stuttering
affects four times as many males as it does females and people
do not generally stutter when they sing, whisper, speak in
chorus, or when they do not hear their voice (City Lit, 2010).
The importance of gaze has been highlighted in many
papers to date. Many of them indicate how important eye gaze
is while engaging in a conversation. Rutter, (1984) expresses
how mutual gaze is an essential component of dyadic face-to-
face interaction and is often used to establish social
interactions. The enhanced affective arousal elicited by the eye
contact is supposed to influence subsequent perceptual and
cognitive processing (Senju, 2009). Eye gaze is one of the most
important elements in human-human interactions: we use our
eyes to study the behaviour and appearance of others (Hugot,
2007). Without direct gaze during social interactions, the
listener may not know that the person who is speaking is
talking to them, showing eye contact is important when
interacting with others in conversation. It is also important to
understand if social anxiety and stuttering does influence gaze
behaviour, as this could indicate gaze needs to be analysed in
future studies in social anxiety and stuttering.
IV. AUTHOR’S VIEW
The author suggests gaze behaviour in response to direct
and averted dynamic facial gaze is influenced by social anxiety
and stuttering. The amount of research on the opposing side is
minimal and lacks research justifying the findings. A study by
Mühlberger et al. (2008) has results which indicate that faces
are initially avoided in socially anxious participants. This
shows that not only do individuals with SAD avoid eye contact
within conversations, but the facial expressions of the person
they are talking to (happy or angry) may also have an impact
on levels of anxiety in SAD. These results suggest that happy
or angry faces could make an individual feel different
depending on the facial expression. This could also lead to gaze
avoidance in those with social anxiety if their anxiety levels are
increased when presented with an angry face. Howell et al.
(2015) create findings from their study which provide further
support that individuals with elevated social anxiety are likely
to engage in eye contact avoidance, which may have negative
impacts on social functioning and contribute to the
maintenance of social anxiety symptoms.
Some socially anxious individuals will develop attentional
strategies, which generally include avoiding the face of an
individual, especially mutual gaze. Horley et al. (2001) show
very relevant results to this, where the study suggests that
attentional strategies for the active avoidance of salient features
are an important marker of interpersonal cues of social phobia.
The salient features observed in the study were the eyes, nose,
and mouth, which produced scan paths that represented and
inverted triangle shape to achieve their results. Chen et al.
(2001) has findings which are also in line with this, showing
patients with generalised social phobia directed their attention
away from all faces, regardless of emotion expression.
Individuals with social anxiety may also avoid eye contact as a
fear of being evaluated. This is a common avoidance
behaviour, which can sometimes be shown when individuals
with social anxiety have social encounters. Schulze et al.
(2013) summarise with avoidance of eye contact in social
anxiety may be understood as an attempt to avoid signs of
social threat and to regulate excessive fears of being evaluated.
This may be an indication of a safeguard behaviour, where an
individual with social anxiety will avoid certain social
situations they know will be difficult to manage. The results
could also suggest excessive fears of being evaluated are
common in those with social anxiety, meaning gaze avoidance
would be more common in those situations.
Most methods of stuttering therapy evaluate eye gaze and gaze
behaviours during speech, especially during moments of a
stutter, as some People Who Stutter (PWS) can close their
eyes, flicker their eyes, or lose eye contact during moments of a
stutter. A study by Hudock et al. (2015) indicates gaze aversion
from the other person in the conversation can also affect PWS
when speaking and may contribute to their negative reactions
to their own stuttering. This study suggests a build-up of
negative reactions and thoughts could increase over time,
which could increase an individual’s fear of disfluency. As
gaze avoidance is common with PWS, negative reactions and
thoughts could increase the avoidance of gaze.
On an anecdotal note, the author also has a stutter, and they
have experienced eye flickers, the closing of the eyes and gaze
avoidance while in moments of stuttering in social interactions.
This has led to the author noticing the listener losing eye
contact with the author, and in some accounts losing interest in
the conversation. The author has also received stuttering
therapy, which introduced gaze behaviour while stuttering. Of
which, the author noticed better control of their stutter while
engaging in a conversation with better gaze behaviour.
V. COUNTER ARGUMENT
It has been shown that self-reported fear and avoidance of
eye contact are associated with social anxiety in both
nonpatient and SAD samples (Schneier et al. 2011). This
research implies those without SAD also have a certain level of
gaze avoidance, suggesting gaze behaviour may not only be
influenced by social anxiety.
A study by Wieser et al. (2008) considers the effects of
direct and averted gaze on autonomic arousal and gaze
behaviour in social anxiety. The study results indicate the
groups they tested did not differ in their gaze behaviour
concerning direct vs. averted gaze. Their psychological
findings indicate that direct gaze may be a fear-relevant feature
for socially anxious individuals in social interaction. However,
this seems not to result in gaze avoidance.
VI. AUTHOUR’S ARGUMENT
They study by Schneier et al. (2011) had a few limitations.
As Schneier, et al, (2011) developed the Gaze Anxiety Rating
Scale (GARS), it should be taken into consideration that this
scale had not been validated by others before, meaning it may
not be 100% reliable. The research also lacked in samples to
conduct factor analysis, and the research also needed more
stringent testing of divergent validity with depression.
Schneier, et al, (2011) may have had nonpatients showing signs
of self-reported fear and eye contact due to bad analysis of
participants during the assessment stage. This could also be due
to participants giving false results.
From the study by Wieser et al. (2008), it was said research
on gaze processing in social anxiety should be intensified and
the impact of direct gaze on perceived anxiety should be
further investigated as this might be a critical threat stimulus
and result in avoidance behaviour like gaze avoidance. This
study goes against most other studies on gaze behaviour, as it
implies gaze behaviour concerning direct vs. averted gaze does
not differ, and gaze avoidance is not a fear-relevant feature in
Overall, it has been shown throughout this position paper
that direct gaze does result in gaze avoidance in socially
anxious individuals and stuttering.
There is only a small minority of research that suggests this
statement is false, which does have many limitations to it.
There has however been a lot of research on the topic since
then, which shows direct gaze does result in gaze avoidance in
socially anxious individuals and stuttering.
Nearly all research papers to date summarise gaze
behaviour does play a part within SAD. This has been proven
by indicating avoidance in eye gaze during a conversation,
which is more visible in SAD. As stuttering symptoms are
similar to SAD symptoms, there is evidence that results should
be similar. Studies in stuttering and gaze behaviours back this,
showing gaze behaviour is different with PWS compared to
people who do not stutter.
This position paper has demonstrated that gaze behaviour
needs to be considered and analysed in future studies in social
anxiety and stuttering, as it could have a key impact on the
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