Anxiety Can Alter the Way We Perceive Negative Emotions

Lydia Wang ’26

Figure 1: The ability to distinguish neutral vs. negative expressions varies based on individual and contextual environments.

As individuals, we constantly make decisions, many of which depend on our perception of social contexts. For example, when answering a question during class, one may gauge a friend’s expressions and observe whether they are grimacing or smiling, which (respectively) suggest an incorrect or correct response. This is an example of perceptual decision-making, where through observation and sensory input, one chooses an option over various alternatives. As such, depending on the friend’s expression, an individual would likely stay with, or change, their response. However, not all individuals may interpret expressions in the same manner. To explore this, Stony Brook University researchers Gabriella Imbriano and Aprajita Mohanty investigated how an individual’s anxiety impacts their perception of fearful (FF) vs. neutral (NF) facial expressions when they are aware (or unaware) that they are being evaluated. They hypothesized that those with more severe anxiety would be less successful in discriminating between facial expressions when aware that they are being evaluated.

Seventy-four participants from Stony Brook University, aged 18 to 27, were assigned to complete two tasks: a threshold identification task and a cued discrimination task. The threshold identification task evaluated participants’ ability to differentiate FF and NF, and the specific discrimination task presented participants with images of expressions and told them to select FF or NF. Participants were also split into two groups—one monitored and one not monitored—and took the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) to self-report their anxiety. During data analysis, it was confirmed that gender, age, anxiety levels, and how well they felt during the task were not confounding variables between groups. It was then observed that, when not being evaluated, those with greater anxiety were more proficient in perceptual sensitivity in identifying fearful vs. neutral expressions. The opposite also held true; namely, those with greater anxiety performed worse when being evaluated. From these results, it can be seen that individuals more afflicted with anxiety suffer from social impairment, and that there is no universality in perceiving cues in perceptual decision-making. 

This study demonstrates that perceptual decision-making is dependent on both evaluative contexts and the individual. In the future, it would be beneficial to recruit participants from a broader range of age and socioeconomic status, and to include additional negative emotions. Nonetheless, this study sheds light on current efforts to consider individual differences when predicting the outcome of a social interaction as well as how to isolate the pathophysiology of such behavior.

Works Cited:

[1] Y. Karvay, et al., They’re watching you: the impact of social evaluation and anxiety on threat-related perceptual decision-making. Springer Nature 86, 1174-1183 (2021). doi: 10.1007/s00426-021-01547-w

[2] Image retrieved from:


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