Fear of negative evaluation and the hypervigilance-avoidance hypothesis: an eye-tracking study

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The hypervigilance-avoidance hypothesis assumes that anxious individuals initially attend to and subsequently avoid threatening stimuli. In this study pairs of emotional (angry or happy) and neutral facial expressions were presented to students of high or low fear of negative evaluation (FNE) while their eye movements were recorded. High FNE participants initially looked more often at emotional compared to neutral faces, indicating an attentional bias for emotional facial expressions. This effect was further modulated by the sex of the face, as high FNE clearly showed a preference for happy female faces. Analysis of the time course of attention revealed that high FNE looked at the emotional faces longer during the first second of stimulus exposure, whereas they avoided these faces in the consecutive time interval from 1 to 1.5 s. These results partially support the hypervigilance-avoidance hypothesis and additionally indicate the relevance of happy faces for high FNE. Further research should clarify the meaning of happy facial expressions as well as the influence of the sex of the observed face in social anxiety.

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