Can Social Anxiety Lead You to Misread Facial Cues?

New study how social anxiety can lead to misreading other people’s emotions.

Posted Dec 21, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

How do you know whether other people like you? If you’re good at reading other people’s feelings, you’ll make these judgments on the basis of some combination of verbal and nonverbal cues. If people say nice things to you, chances are that they feel positively toward you, especially if they accompany those words with a smile. If they turn away as you approach them, this could mean they would prefer not to be in your company, but it could also mean nothing at all, and that they have other things on their mind. Perhaps you’re in the middle of a pleasant conversation with person A, but when person B comes along, your chat with A ends abruptly, and you’re left feeling confused and hurt.

For people who have social anxiety disorder (SAD), interactions with others become laden with extra meaning. These individuals have extreme fear and anxiety about any situation in which there’s the potential that they will be negatively evaluated. They enter into ordinary interpersonal situations on edge, and will be primed to interpret ambiguous situations in a way that confirms their negative expectations. According to a new study Bar-Ilan University (Israel) psychologist Roy Azoulay and colleagues (2020), “Cognitive models of SAD suggest that enhanced processing of negative social cues is at the core of this condition” (p. 1). The majority of research supporting this cognitive approach involves experimental manipulations in which people with SAD receive ambiguous verbal feedback which they interpret as criticism or rejection. What role, posed the Israeli authors, might facial cues have in providing information through their own “crucial channel” of nonverbal communication?

To examine the interpretations that people make from facial cues in the laboratory, the Israeli researchers developed a "morphed" video using standardized images of artificial faces in which the emotion being conveyed gradually changed from pleasure (smiling) to disgust The job of participants was to stop the video when they detected that change. A control condition presented participants with a video showing no changes in facial expression. The higher an individual’s level of social anxiety, the authors proposed, the more quickly that shift from positive to negative should be detected. In a second experiment, the authors reversed the order of facial expressions from disgust to smiling.

People with SAD should, if the cognitive model of facial cues is correct, be quicker in detecting the emotion of disgust due to their heightened sensitivity to negative social cues. However, to add to the strength of their model, the Israeli research team added a second factor to the equation in which they exposed participants to the experience of rejection. In social psychological research, a common way to create rejection in the lab involves a very simple yet effective approach known as “cyberball,” an online ball-tossing game. The entire game is experimentally manipulated, with the participant as the sole player, but it appears to the participant that two other people are playing at the same time. This manipulation can be done in the lab or, as in the Azoulay et al. study, in an online environment.

The key feature of cyberball is that by controlling the ball toss sequence, the researcher can cause the participant to feel either included or excluded. Very simply, participants enter into the game under the premise that they will play by passing the ball to the two other players who will, in turn, pass the ball to them. However, in the rejection or exclusion condition, the two other “players” pass the ball among themselves, leaving out the participant. In the inclusion condition, the participant receives the ball one-third of the time. After experiencing rejection, the authors proposed, participants high in social anxiety should be more likely to detect the smile-to-disgust shift because, feeling rebuffed, they would be especially primed to respond to negative facial expressions.

Using Amazon’s online recruiting software, Mechanical Turk, the Bar-Ilan researchers obtained two samples of participants with 139 in the first study and 203 in the second (divided almost equally by sex) with a mean age of 35 years. The participants believed the study would involve “visual mentalization,” with the cyberball game as the main focus. After playing the game, which lasted for 30 ball tosses, they were exposed to the morphed facial video clips with the instruction to stop when they became aware that the expression had changed. Participants self-reported on their degree of social anxiety with one general social phobia questionnaire and a second, more behavioral, measure of social anxiety and avoidance in specific situations. To tap into the effect of the cyberball manipulation on the way participants felt during the experiment, the research team administered a measure of “basic needs threat,” which included ratings of feelings of longingness, sense of control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence.

The findings indicated that the online rejection did produce higher levels of threat. People high in social anxiety experienced greater threat levels overall, but rejection didn’t produce a more pronounced reaction of threat among the socially anxious. Relevant to the main study’s predictions, though, the findings derived from the morphed videos showed that people high in social anxiety who were exposed to rejection indeed seemed primed to respond to the slightest changes in facial emotions as those faces slid from positive to negative expressions. The reversal, investigated in the second study, in which negative facial cues morphed into positive ones, did not produce the same heightened sensitivity in those high in social anxiety who experienced ostracism. Thus, it’s not that people high in social anxiety become primed to detect any change in emotion after being rejected, just the shift into the negative. Furthermore, people low in social anxiety were more sensitive to the shift from negative to positive in the inclusion condition than their socially anxious counterparts, suggesting that people high in social anxiety are less able to derive positive social meaning from feelings of acceptance.

It’s important to keep in mind that the sample wasn’t based on a clinical population. However, in some ways, this makes the findings even more impressive. If you think of social anxiety as a continuum, as suggested by the authors, interventions to help reduce feelings of apprehension about social situations could teach the socially anxious to wait to receive more information about the emotional cues provided by others before they jump to the worst conclusions from the first potentially negative signals. As the authors conclude, “A successful intervention may lead highly anxious individuals to question their outlook by asking themselves, 'Maybe she started smiling at me a while ago, and I noticed it only now?'” (p. 5).

To sum up, if you tend to be unsure about how you will be received by others, have an open mind toward gathering more evidence before you are convinced that people are rejecting you. Emotional cues from other people can help your relationships be that much more fulfilling once you let their faces do the talking.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock


Azoulay, R., Berger, U., Keshet, H., Niedenthal, P. M., & Gilboa-Schechtman, E. (2020). Social anxiety and the interpretation of morphed facial expressions following exclusion and inclusion. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 66. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2019.101511.