Faces in a crowd: high socially anxious individuals estimate that more people are looking at them than low socially anxious individuals.
Bolt OC., Ehlers A., Clark DM.
BACKGROUND: People with social anxiety disorder are afraid of being scrutinized by others and often feel that they are the excessive focus of other people's attention. This study investigated whether, when compared to low socially anxious individuals, high socially anxious individuals overestimate the proportion of people in a crowd who are observing them. It was hypothesized that any potential overestimation would be modulated by self-focused attention. METHOD: Forty-eight high and 48 low socially anxious participants performed a "faces in a crowd" computer task during which they briefly saw matrices of faces, which varied in terms of the proportion of people who were looking at them. Participants estimated the proportion of people who were looking at them. The task was performed once with mirrors present (to induce an enhanced self-focused state) and once without mirrors present (neutral state). RESULTS: Participants' subjective estimates and the objective proportion of faces looking towards them were strongly correlated in both the high and low socially anxious groups. However, high socially anxious participants estimated that more people were looking at them than low socially anxious participants. In the first phase of the experiment, but not in the later phases, this effect was magnified in the mirror condition. DISCUSSION: This study provides preliminary evidence of a social anxiety related perceptual difference that may be amplified by self-focused attention. Clinical implications are discussed.