The Effects of Social Anxiety on Decision-Making and Recognition of Facial Expressions

Joyce Chen ’23

Figure 1: Anxiety can potentially reduce an individual’s ability to distinguish between certain facial expressions, thereby causing negative social consequences.

Facial expressions are one of the fundamental methods by which we perceive others. However, our perceptions can be faulty. Perceptual decision-making for recognizing facial cues is biased by our personal attitudes, social knowledge, and stereotypes. Despite there being numerous studies on this process, not much is known about how perceptual decision-making occurs in individuals with anxiety symptoms. Dr. Aprajita Mohanty, a Stony Brook University professor and researcher, formed a research team to further investigate how people with anxiety perceive threatening and neutral facial expressions. 

Dr. Mohanty and her team assessed 74 participants between the ages of 18 to 27. They were instructed to complete several tasks with threatening and neutral cues to distinguish between different types of facial expressions. For the cued-discrimination tasks, fearful face (FF) and neutral face (NF) images were used as stimuli. The subjects were evaluated based on their reaction time while they utilized fearful cues (FC) and neutral cues (NC) to distinguish between the FF and NF. The final task involved dividing the participants into two groups, where one group had a webcam placed in front of them and was told that they would be evaluated by students in a different room. The other group was not shown the webcam and was not watched. In the end, the evaluated group self-reported higher levels of judgment from their peers than the non-evaluated group. Across both groups, participants had a faster and more accurate distinction between FF and NF from FC than NC. However, because the evaluated group had higher anxiety levels from being watched, they had worse perceptual sensitivity compared to the non-evaluated group. Furthermore, the evaluated group had a slower reaction time. Overall, it appears that anxiety leads to an increased likelihood of noticing threatening cues that causes inaccurate perceptual decision-making. 

Dr. Mohanty and her team’s study will pave the way for assessing individual anxiety levels in response to environmental cues. In addition, it sheds light on how preferences differ from person to person and how individual perceptions can cause various forms of decision-making. Future research is needed for larger sample size and participants with varying socioeconomic statuses. 

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://images.pexels.com/photos/2774556/pexels-photo-2774556.jpeg?auto=compress&cs=tinysrgb&w=1260&h=750&dpr=2

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