Background and objectives--Numerous studies have supported attentional biases toward social threats in socially anxious individuals. The aim of the present study was to investigate the time-course of sustained attention for multiple emotional stimuli using a free-viewing paradigm in social anxiety. Methods--Thirty-two socially anxious (SA) and 30 non-anxious (NA) participants completed the free-viewing task. Participants were presented with a face array composed of angry, sad, happy and neutral faces for 10 s in each trial. Eye movements were recorded throughout the trial to assess the time-course of attentional processing. Results--Although SA participants did not exhibit initial orienting bias, they had higher fixation probability for angry faces during the 250–1000 ms time intervals, relative to NA participants. SA participants also maintained their attention longer than NA participants did when angry faces were initially fixated upon. Moreover, NA participants showed higher fixation probability for happy faces during the 6–8 s after stimulus onset. We failed to observe attentional avoidance of threat in SA participants. Limitations--First, this study used a non-clinical sample. Second, the stimuli used in this study were static. Conclusions--The present findings suggest that, relative to non-anxious individuals, socially anxious individuals are characterized by enhanced engagement with social threat at an early stage of processing and difficulty in disengaging from social threat once their initial attention is located on it. Conversely, non-anxious individuals are characterized by enhanced engagement with positive stimuli at a later stage of processing.
Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 54, 178-185