In social anxiety, cues that may signal social exclusion (i.e., social threats) are attended to as they offer an opportunity to change one’s behavior and increase one’s chances of social approval. Termed attentional bias, this type of behavior is believed to play a role in the development and maintenance of social anxiety.
The argument in favor of this explanation is however divided, as there is evidence for two types of explanations about the function of attentional bias in social anxiety. On the one hand, the individuals is thought to pay attention to social threats to rapidly detect signs of social disapproval, and on the other they may avoid social threats to help alleviate their anxiety and reduce the likelihood of receiving a negative evaluation.
ATTENTION TO SIGNS OF SOCIAL EXCLUSION
These two perspectives can nonetheless be reconciled if we look at the context. Indeed, a person with social anxiety may either diminish or enhance attention to social threat as a function of whether or not there was a threat of social exclusion.
Notably, socially anxious individuals would attend to social threats in order to detect signs of possible negative evaluation; by doing so they can then adjust their behaviors to be more acceptable, thereby preventing social exclusion. Thus, until they receive information signaling social exclusion, they may be hypervigilant toward social threat cues (e.g., negative facial expressions).
NEED FOR SOCIAL APPROVAL AFTER REJECTION
By contrast, those who perceive that they have been socially excluded, may no longer need to allocate their attention toward socially threatening stimuli, and instead might choose to avoid those cues to help alleviate their anxiety. Furthermore, after perceiving social exclusion, they might turn their attention towards cues that signal social approval. This type of response is believed to be a way to compensate for rejection by seeking other signs of social affiliation.
It is noteworthy to add that seeking cues that signal social approval does not mean that they behave in a pro-social manner. In fact, they still remain socially passive, as they do not try to build social relationship but only seek passive social approval such as in the form of a smiling face. The threat of social rejection makes it hard for them to adopt a pro-social behavior, because they fear that the risk of rejection is too great.
Buckner JD, Dewall CN, Schmidt NB, Maner JK. A Tale of Two Threats: Social Anxiety and Attention to Social Threat as a Function of Social Exclusion and Non-Exclusion Threats. Cognit Ther Res. 2010 Oct 1;34(5):449-455. doi: 10.1007/s10608-009-9254-x. PMID: 20877581; PMCID: PMC2945368.