Attentional processes during emotional face perception in social anxiety disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of eye-tracking findings

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Dec 20:111:110353. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2021.110353. Epub 2021 May 15.


Background In recent years, a growing body of eye-tracking research has investigated gaze behavior in individuals with social anxiety during the visual perception of emotional stimuli. The aim of this article was to review and synthesize studies examining attention orientation in patients with clinical social anxiety by means of eye-tracking methodology. Methods Through a systematic search, 30 articles were identified, including 11 studies in which single emotional faces were used as stimuli and seven eligible studies in which threatening faces were paired with neutral stimuli. Meta-analyses were conducted to compare prolonged eye-contact behavior and early attentional biases to threats in individuals with social anxiety disorder (SAD) and healthy controls. Results Moderate group differences were revealed for single face viewing studies, with SAD patients showing significantly reduced eye contact with negative (Hedges' g = -0.67) and positive emotional faces (g = -0.49) compared to that of healthy participants. Type of task and duration of stimulus presentation were (marginally) significant moderators of between-study variance in effect size. Small but significant group differences were found for early attentional biases toward angry faces versus neutral stimuli (g = 0.21) but not toward happy faces versus neutral stimuli (g = 0.05). Preliminary evidence for a hyperscanning strategy in SAD patients relative to healthy controls emerged (g = 0.42). Limitations The number of included studies with face pairings was low, and two studies were excluded due to unavailable data. Conclusions Our results suggest that eye contact avoidance with emotional faces is a prominent feature in SAD patients. Patients might benefit from guidance to learn to make adequate eye contact during therapeutic interventions, such as exposure therapy. SAD patients demonstrated slightly heightened attention allocation toward angry faces relative to that of healthy participants during early processing stages. Threat biases can be potential targets for attention modification training as an adjuvant to other treatments. Future research on early attentional processes may benefit from improved arrangements of paired stimuli to increase the psychometric properties of initial attention indices.

Keywords: Attentional bias; Eye contact; Face processing; Gaze behavior; Social anxiety; Vigilance.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Attentional Bias / physiology*
  • Eye-Tracking Technology / instrumentation*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Phobia, Social / psychology*