Face to face: visual scanpath evidence for abnormal processing of facial expressions in social phobia

Psychiatry Res. 2004 Jun 30;127(1-2):43-53. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2004.02.016.


Cognitive models of social phobia propose that cognitive biases and fears regarding negative evaluation by others result in preferential attention to interpersonal sources of threat. These fears may account for the hypervigilance and avoidance of eye contact commonly reported by clinicians. This study provides the first objective examination of threat-related processing in social phobia. It was predicted that hyperscanning (hypervigilance) and eye avoidance would be most apparent in social phobia for overt expressions of threat. An infrared corneal reflection technique was used to record visual scanpaths in response to angry, sad, and happy vs. neutral facial expressions. Twenty-two subjects with social phobia were compared with age- and sex-matched normal controls. As predicted, social phobia subjects displayed hyperscanning, (increased scanpath length) and avoidance (reduced foveal fixations) of the eyes, particularly evident for angry faces. The results could not be explained by either medication or co-morbid depression. These findings are consistent with theories emphasising the role of information processing biases in social phobia, and show promise in the application to treatment evaluation in this disorder.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / complications
  • Anxiety / diagnosis
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Perceptual Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Perceptual Disorders / etiology*
  • Phobic Disorders / complications
  • Phobic Disorders / diagnosis
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Visual Perception / physiology*