Time course of attentional bias in social anxiety: The effects of spatial frequencies and individual threats

Psychophysiology. 2020 Sep;57(9):e13617. doi: 10.1111/psyp.13617. Epub 2020 Jun 17.


Hypervigilance and attentional bias to threat faces with low-spatial-frequency (LSF) information have been found in individuals with social anxiety. The vigilance-avoidance hypothesis posits that socially anxious individuals exhibit initial vigilance and later avoidance to threatening cues. However, the temporal dynamics of these two processes in response to various LSF threats in social anxiety remain unclear. In the current study, we presented faces containing anger, disgust, and fear in high and low spatial frequencies and compared the neural correlates with sensory perception and attention in individuals with high versus low social anxiety (HSA/LSA, n = 24). A visual search task was used to investigate the attentional effects of threats and spatial frequencies, and event-related potentials, particularly, the visual components of P1 and P250, were measured to index visual perceptual and attentional processes, respectively. We found that HSA individuals showed pronounced P1 and reduced P250 to LSF (vs. HSF) faces, regardless of emotion type, suggesting a general pattern of initial vigilance and later avoidance to LSF faces in social anxiety. Furthermore, while LSA individuals showed enhanced P250 to both fear and disgust (vs. neutral) faces, HSA individuals showed pronounced P250 to disgust faces alone. Our results, thus, elucidate the temporal profile of early vigilance and later avoidance in social anxiety, highlighting its broad implication for all faces and predominance in the low spatial frequency. Considering individual threats, our results demonstrate specific attentional avoidance of fear faces in social anxiety.

Keywords: ERPs; perception and attention bias; social anxiety; threat.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Attentional Bias / physiology*
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Disgust
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Facial Expression
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Phobia, Social / physiopathology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Young Adult