Social phobics do not see eye to eye: a visual scanpath study of emotional expression processing

J Anxiety Disord. 2003;17(1):33-44. doi: 10.1016/s0887-6185(02)00180-9.


Clinical observation suggests that social phobia is characterised by eye avoidance in social interaction, reflecting an exaggerated social sensitivity. These reports are consistent with cognitive models of social phobia that emphasize the role of interpersonal processing biases. Yet, these observations have not been verified empirically, nor has the psychophysiological basis of eye avoidance been examined. This is the first study to use an objective psychophysiological marker of visual attention (the visual scanpath) to examine directly how social phobia subjects process interpersonal (facial expression) stimuli. An infra-red corneal reflection technique was used to record visual scanpaths in response to neutral, happy and sad face stimuli in 15 subjects with social phobia, and 15 age and sex-matched normal controls. The social phobia subjects showed an avoidance of facial features, particularly the eyes, but extensive scanning of non-features, compared with the controls. These findings suggest that attentional strategies for the active avoidance of salient facial features are an important marker of interpersonal cues in social phobia. Visual scanpath evidence may, therefore, have important implications for clinical intervention.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Perceptual Disorders / diagnosis
  • Perceptual Disorders / etiology*
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*