University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal - Perception of Facial Expressions in Social Anxiety and Gaze Anxiety
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In total, these findings provide increasing support for gaze anxiety's relevance to social anxiety. If gaze anxiety is related to the interpretation of emotional intensity, these results have interesting implications. The degree to which someone is sad or happy provides us feedback on how to proceed in a social situation. We use that information when we make the decision to provide comfort or offer an apology. It helps us to respond appropriately, and individuals with social anxiety typically do not respond appropriately. Reducing fear about eye-contact could help improve conversation skills or reduce avoidance behaviors.

It is unclear why anxiety towards eye contact is related to intensity ratings. Gaze anxiety was strongly correlated with depression and stress in my study. Perhaps gaze anxiety is an indicator of an individual's distress level and greater distress is related to bias. A recent study found that socially anxious individuals avoided eye contact more during periods of high state anxiety (Howell, Zibulsky, Srivastav, & Weeks, 2015), and it is reasonable to expect that people who are under distress would more heavily rely on avoidant behavior. Another explanation is that socially anxious individuals are less able to discriminate between varying degrees of emotional expression. A previous study that measured ERP's in response to viewing increasingly fearful faces found that there was less discrimination in the brain response of socially anxious individuals compared to those of healthy volunteers (Frenkel and Bar-Haim, 2011). My survey responses show a similar pattern.

The relationship that gaze anxiety has with psychological distress (depression, anxiety, stress) could provide meaningful insight on multiple disorders that involve maladaptive gaze behavior, including SAD, autism, and schizophrenia (Guillon, Hadjikhani, Baduel, & Roge, 2014; Schulze et al., 2013; Vaidyanathan et al., 2014). At the self-report level, gaze anxiety might be able to function as an indicator of current emotional state or symptom severity. With the addition of eye-tracking, which can give data on tracking and pupillometry, gaze behavior could provide objective evidence towards assessment. However, further research is needed.

Although it is not an objective measure, the Gaze Anxiety Rating Scale provides an easy to use measurement of avoidance behaviors for studies unable to utilize eye tracking or trying to conserve experimental resources. My findings provide evidence of the scale's convergent and discriminant validity. However, it was unclear what differences between the GARS' two subscales signify because of the close relationship between gaze fear and gaze avoidance. Future studies should continue to test the scale's psychometric value and gaze anxiety's role as a moderating variable.

Appendix A >>