Social Evaluation and Anxiety Can Affect Perception of Threats

Ayesha Azeem ’23

Figure 1: Participants were asked to determine whether they thought a face was neutral or threatening after being told they would be watched.

When we make decisions, a multitude of cognitive processes occur. One such factor involved is social evaluation, which may either enhance or hinder perceptual decisions. Perceptual decision-making is defined as choosing one option out of a set based on available sensory information. It is often observed when one perceives threatening stimuli, a response conserved through evolution. Thus, the determination of threatening stimuli is ‘bottom-down’ processing, and is fast and accurate. Conversely, ‘top-down’ factors like the presence of threatening faces may also influence perceptual decision-making through higher-order social contextual factors like stereotypes, attitudes, and social knowledge. Perception of facial expression is further influenced by individual differences in anxiety, but it is unclear how social evaluation interacts with these differences to help discriminate between threatening and neutral faces. 

In a study conducted by Stony Brook University researcher Dr. Aprajita Mohanty and her team, participants completed a perceptual decision-making task where they used threat- and neutral-related cues to discriminate between threatening and neutral faces, with participants also socially evaluated by peers. The researchers hypothesized that individuals with severe anxiety would be worse at discriminating between threatening and neutral faces following threatening cues in social evaluative contexts. 74 participants between the ages of 18 and 27 completed the task for course credit and were aware of their evaluation by college students through a webcam. 

Results indicated that the evaluated group reported higher levels of perceived evaluation than the non-evaluated group. In the presence of social evaluation, greater state anxiety levels were found to be associated with worse perceptual sensitivity when determining threatening and neutral faces after threatening cues. It is possible that threat cues increase attention in anticipation of the stimulation, leading to better detection of the stimulus. However, these effects are clearly not universal and depend on social evaluative contexts and individual differences in anxiety. Because anxiety is associated with beliefs of increased probability of threatening stimuli, greater anxiety levels during social evaluation can lead to higher expectations of seeing threatening facial expressions after threat cues. A limitation of the study is the lack of a baseline anxiety level, which could help demonstrate that the knowledge of social evaluation can increase levels of anxiety. Further studies can replicate the results of this study on a larger scale, implement a ‘happy face’ stimulus, or use a more salient social evaluation manipulation where participants are given feedback by the students watching them. 

Works Cited:

[1] Y. Karvay, et al., They’re watching you: the impact of social evaluation and anxiety on threat-related perceptual decision-making. Psychological Research (2021). doi: 10.1007/s00426-021-01547-w.

[2] Image retrieved from: https://cdn-www.oktopost.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/HERO_CC0-Public-Domain_experience-feedback-survey-customer-user-online-1447523-pxhere.com_.jpg 

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