Social anxiety may cause you to see others as a threat, even when they’re not

by Kristyn Trickey, Thompson Rivers University

Think about the last time you were walking in a public place, or interacting one-on-one with another human being. In our daily social interactions, we are constantly putting out ever-changing clues as to the emotions we are feeling inside; these may include our body language, tone of voice, and, notably, our facial expressions. In addition to helping us understand what those around us may be feeling, facial expressions also let us know when we can expect someone to be friendly and welcoming (eg. smiling face), or when they might be better left alone (eg. an angry face). Being aware of when a threat may arise in a social situation is important, but for some, particularly those who experience social anxiety, this system of detecting threat may be overly sensitive, leading us to avoid or be fearful of others when it is often unnecessary.

Researchers Gutierrez-Garcia and Calvo wanted to uncover more about this. Do people experiencing social anxiety truly see others as more threatening than those without social anxiety? Therefore, would they be more likely to rate others’ facial expressions as untrustworthy? Does it make a difference whether the emotion expressed has a positive (happiness), negative (anger or disgust), or neutral (sadness, surprise or fear) connotation?

To test this out, they recruited two groups of university students. One group met the criteria for having a high level of social anxiety, while the other group had a low level. The students were shown short video clips of real people with six different facial expressions (happy, sad, angry, disgusted, surprised, fearful). Each participant viewed all the expressions at multiple intensities, including the full-blown emotional expressions, more subtle versions of the expressions (eg. 50% intensity), and purely neutral faces. In a split-second participants had to decide how “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy” each face was.

So, what did they find? Those with social anxiety do tend to rate people as appearing more untrustworthy, BUT only when those people looked angry or disgusted. Students with social anxiety were better at picking out these emotions, even when the expression was subtle; on the other hand, their ratings of positive and neutral emotions did not differ from the students with low social anxiety. However, a problem with this study is that the facial expressions shown, though morphing, were posed and potentially unrealistic (eg. more intense than what is seen in everyday life). A question for future research could be whether this sensitivity to facial changes can ever have an adaptive, protective function, or if it simply unhelpful. Keep this in mind next time you spot an angry face on your morning walk – perhaps what you see could be deceiving!


Gutierrez-Garcia, A. & Calvo, M. G. (2016). Social anxiety and trustworthiness judgements of dynamic facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 52, 119-127. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2016.04.003

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