The Gaze of Social Blushers – A Case of Dwelling and Aversion
Adelaide Manley

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a recognized psychiatric and involves a fear of being negatively judged or perceived by others.

SAD patients may avoid eye contact, also known as “gaze aversion,” during social situations or engage in “hyperscanning.”

Both avoidance and hyperscanning are coping mechanisms that enable the individual to both observe and avoid the anxiety-provoking object or person. Some individuals with this condition also develop a fear of blushing, which suggests there are different subtypes of SAD. Individuals who fear blushing tend to become hypersensitive towards their own anxiety and as a result, their phobia of negative evaluation is reinforced.

Research led by Albert Moukheiber, Hopital Pitie-Salpetriere, Paris, France examined gaze aversion in SAD patients without fear of blushing with SAD patients who fear blushing.

The authors hypothesized that those individuals who do not fear blushing will avoid the eye region more due to their fear of negative evaluation, which they believe they will receive from others’ gaze, while patients with the blushing phobia will not avoid eye contact since their own blushing, rather than social evaluation from others, is their central focus.

Using colour digitized photos of men and women with various facial expressions (neutral, happy, surprised, disgusted, scared, sad, and angry) and an eye tracking device allowed the researchers to measure fixation and dwell time.

Fixation refers to how often the participant stops or rapidly moves both eyes across any location of the face. Dwell time simply measures how long a participant stares at an image.

Were the researchers’ hypotheses correct?

The results indicate that SAD individuals who do not fear blushing showed gaze avoidance in the eye areas of the presented images, while patients who feared blushing showed no significant difference in gaze avoidance compared to a healthy control group of participants.

In terms of the facial expressions on the images, there were significant results for the angry and disgust faces in the SAD group likely because these expressions represent an obvious negative evaluation. Nonetheless, the authors also note that when individuals are particularly anxious, gaze aversion is evident regardless of group.

Overall, it is apparent that the individuals in the two SAD groups respond to socially stressful situations differently. Gaze aversion may be a dominant feature of social phobias, but it is clear that SAD takes on different forms.

Some individuals look into the eyes for any cues of whether others may notice them blushing, while others avoid eye contact out of fear of seeing or perceiving a negative evaluation from them.

Put differently, individuals with SAD may look directly at the observer to see if they have any reaction towards them physically, while others avoid eye contact entirely to avoid the possibility of negative judgments from the observer. Clearly, individuals with social phobias are not a homogenous group and different social phobias may emerge depending on what causes the anxiety symptoms and the mental illness in question.

About the Author: Adelaide Manley is an undergraduate student studying psychology and family & child studies at the University of Guelph. After graduation, she is hoping to pursue a Master of Social Work.

Resources

Moukheiber, A., Rautureau, G., Perez-Diaz, F., Jouvent, R., and Pelissolo, A. 2012. Gaze behaviour in social blushers. Psychiatry Research, 200(2-3), 614-619. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2012.07.017