Attention allocation and social worries predict interpretations of peer-related social cues in adolescents.
Haller SPW., Doherty BR., Duta M., Kadosh KC., Lau JYF., Scerif G.
Adolescence is a sensitive period for increases in normative but also debilitating social fears and worries. As the interpretation of interpersonal cues is pertinent to social anxiety, investigating mechanisms that may underlie biases in social cue appraisal is important. Fifty-one adolescents from the community aged 14-19 were presented with self- and other-relevant naturalistic social scenes for 5s and then required to rate either a negative or a positive interpretation of the scene. Eye-tracking data were collected during the free viewing period to index attentional deployment. Individual differences in social worries were measured via self-report. Social anxiety levels significantly predicted biases in interpretation ratings across scenes. Additionally, cumulative attentional deployment to peer cues also predicted these interpretation biases: participants who spent more time on facial displays perceived more threat, i.e. endorsed more negative and less positive interpretations. Self-relevant scenes yielded greater tendencies to draw negative interpretations. Finally, older adolescents also selected more benign interpretations. Social anxiety is associated with a bias in interpreting social cues; a cognitive bias that is also influenced by attentional deployment. This study contributes to our understanding of the possible attention mechanisms that shape cognitions relevant to social anxiety in this at-risk age group.