Increasing evidence indicates that eye gaze direction affects the processing of emotional faces in anxious individuals. However, the effects of eye gaze direction on the behavioral responses elicited by emotional faces, such as avoidance behavior, remain largely unexplored. We administered an Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT) in high (HSA) and low socially anxious (LSA) individuals. All participants responded to photographs of angry, happy and neutral faces (presented with direct and averted gaze), by either pushing a joystick away from them (avoidance) or pulling it towards them (approach). Compared to LSA, HSA were faster in avoiding than approaching angry faces. Most crucially, this avoidance tendency was only present when the perceived anger was directed towards the subject (direct gaze) and not when the gaze of the face-stimulus was averted. In contrast, HSA individuals tended to avoid happy faces irrespectively of gaze direction. Neutral faces elicited no approach-avoidance tendencies. Thus avoidance of angry faces in social anxiety as measured by AA-tasks reflects avoidance of subject-directed anger and not of negative stimuli in general. In addition, although both anger and joy are considered to reflect approach-related emotions, gaze direction did not affect HSA's avoidance of happy faces, suggesting differential mechanisms affecting responses to happy and angry faces in social anxiety.
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