Socially anxious people show submissive behavior when subliminally confronted with an angry facial expression
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Social phobia affects 3-5% of the general population, often with high degrees of impairment and psychiatric comorbidity such as depression or addiction. It is an anxiety disorder defined by excessive fear reactions that are triggered by social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to possible evaluation by others. Facial expressions are a primary source of nonverbal communication in humans and primates. When two primates establish eye contact, a staring contest may arise, wherein the subordinate will avert its gaze (gaze aversion), thereby showing submission, in order to prevent provoking aggressive confrontation. An angry facial expression can function as an anxiety-provoking cue, and could result in submissive gaze behaviour in socially anxious individuals. In several experiments has been showed that in social anxiety there is rapid gaze avoidance from a threatening facial expression. Controversially, increased dominance traits predicted a more prolonged gaze to a masked angry facial expression. It is suggested that social anxious people show submissive behavior when subliminally confronted with an angry facial expression in comparison to people who are not socially anxious. To test this hypotheses eighteen high social anxious subjects and twenty low social anxious people performed a gaze aversion task to measure their eye gaze response times when facial expressions (angry, happy and neutral) were presented. In previous research, gaze behavior was tested with verbal responses, not with this unique gaze aversion task which measures submissive vs. dominant gaze behavior specifically. As was expected, the response time on the angry facial expression was faster for high social anxious subjects. The current study implies that socially anxious individuals look away faster, and by this show submissive behavior, from threatening situations in comparison to not socially anxious individuals. The results suggest that implicit and reflexive mechanisms underlie submissive gaze behavior in face-to-face confrontations in socially anxious individuals.