Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Electrophysiological evidence of attentional biases in social anxiety disorder

  • E. M. Mueller (a1) (a2), S. G. Hofmann (a1), D. L. Santesso (a2), A. E. Meuret (a3), S. Bitran (a1) and D. A. Pizzagalli (a2)...

Previous studies investigating attentional biases in social anxiety disorder (SAD) have yielded mixed results. Recent event-related potential (ERP) studies using the dot-probe paradigm in non-anxious participants have shown that the P1 component is sensitive to visuospatial attention towards emotional faces. We used a dot-probe task in conjunction with high-density ERPs and source localization to investigate attentional biases in SAD.


Twelve SAD and 15 control participants performed a modified dot-probe task using angry–neutral and happy–neutral face pairs. The P1 component elicited by face pairs was analyzed to test the hypothesis that SAD participants would display early hypervigilance to threat-related cues. The P1 component to probes replacing angry, happy or neutral faces was used to evaluate whether SAD participants show either sustained hypervigilance or decreased visual processing of threat-related cues at later processing stages.


Compared to controls, SAD participants showed relatively (a) potentiated P1 amplitudes and fusiform gyrus (FG) activation to angry–neutral versus happy–neutral face pairs; (b) decreased P1 amplitudes to probes replacing emotional (angry and happy) versus neutral faces; and (c) higher sensitivity (d′) to probes following angry–neutral versus happy–neutral face pairs. SAD participants also showed significantly shorter reaction times (RTs) to probes replacing angry versus happy faces, but no group differences emerged for RT.


The results provide electrophysiological support for early hypervigilance to angry faces in SAD with involvement of the FG, and reduced visual processing of emotionally salient locations at later stages of information processing, which might be a manifestation of attentional avoidance.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: D. A. Pizzagalli, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 1220 William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. (Email:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

N Amir , EB Foa , ME Coles (1998). Automatic activation and strategic avoidance of threat-relevant information in social phobia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 107, 285290.

Y Bar-Haim , D Lamy , L Pergamin , MJ Bakermans-Kranenburg , MH van Ijzendoorn (2007). Threat-related attentional bias in anxious and nonanxious individuals: a meta-analytic study. Psychological Bulletin 133, 124.

S Bentin , T Allison , A Puce , E Perez , G McCarthy (1996). Electrophysiological studies of face perception in human. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 8, 551565.

C Buchel , RJ Dolan (2000). Classical fear conditioning in functional neuroimaging. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 10, 219223.

LJ Chapman , JP Chapman (1987). The measurement of handedness. Brain and Cognition 6, 175183.

YP Chen , A Ehlers , DM Clark , W Mansell (2002). Patients with generalized social phobia direct their attention away from faces. Behaviour Research and Therapy 40, 677687.

VP Clark , SA Hillyard (1996). Spatial selective attention affects early extrastriate but not striate components of the visual evoked potential. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 8, 387402.

RE Cooney , LY Atlas , J Joormann , F Eugène , IH Gotlib (2006). Amygdala activation in the processing of neutral faces in social anxiety disorder: is neutral really neutral? Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 148, 5559.

M Eimer , A Holmes (2007). Event-related brain potential correlates of emotional face processing. Neuropsychologia 45, 1531.

AE Etkin , TD Wager (2007). Functional neuroimaging of anxiety: a meta-analysis of emotional processing in PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobia. American Journal of Psychiatry 164, 14761488.

S Fu , PM Greenwood , R Parasuraman (2005 b). Brain mechanisms of involuntary visuospatial attention: an event-related potential study. Human Brain Mapping 25, 378390.

M Garner , K Mogg , BP Bradley (2006). Orienting and maintenance of gaze to facial expressions in social anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 115, 760770.

N Heinrichs , SG Hofmann (2001). Information processing in social phobia: a critical review. Clinical Psychology Review 21, 751770.

SA Hillyard , L Anllo-Vento (1998). Event-related brain potentials in the study of visual selective attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95, 781787.

JB Hopfinger , VM West (2006). Interactions between endogenous and exogenous attention on cortical visual processing. NeuroImage 31, 774789.

SG Hofmann (2007). Cognitive factors that maintain social anxiety disorder: a comprehensive model and its treatment implications. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy 36, 195209.

K Horley , LM Williams , C Gonsalvez , E Gordon (2003). Social phobics do not see eye to eye: a visual scanpath study of emotional expression processing. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 17, 3344.

K Horley , LM Williams , C Gonsalvez , E Gordon (2004). Face to face: visual scanpath evidence for abnormal processing of facial expressions in social phobia. Psychiatry Research 127, 4353.

V Klucharev , M Sams (2004). Interaction of gaze direction and facial expressions processing: ERP study. Neuroreport 15, 621625.

IT Kolassa , WHR Miltner (2006). Psychophysiological correlates of face processing in social phobia. Brain Research 1118, 130141.

W Li , RE Zinbarg , SG Boehm , KA Paller (2008). Neural and behavioral evidence for affective priming from unconsciously perceived emotional facial expressions and the influence of trait anxiety. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20, 95107.

C MacLeod , A Mathews , P Tata (1986). Attentional bias in emotional disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95, 1520.

C MacLeod , E Rutherford , L Campbell , G Ebsworthy , L Holker (2002). Selective attention and emotional vulnerability: assessing the causal basis of their association through the experimental manipulation of attentional bias. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 111, 107123.

W Mansell , DM Clark , A Ehlers , YP Chen (1999). Social anxiety and attention away from emotional faces. Cognition and Emotion 13, 673690.

M Martin , RM Williams , DM Clark (1991). Does anxiety lead to selective processing of threat-related information? Behaviour Research and Therapy 29, 147160.

RP Mattick , JC Clarke (1998). Development and validation of measures of social phobia scrutiny fear and social interaction anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy 36, 455470.

K Mogg , BP Bradley (2002). Selective orienting of attention to masked threat faces in social anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy 40, 14031414.

K Mogg , A Mathews , J Weinman (1987). Memory bias in clinical anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 96, 9498.

K Mogg , P Philippot , BP Bradley (2004). Selective attention to angry faces in clinical social phobia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 113, 160165.

C Mulert , L Jager , R Schmitt , P Bussfeld , O Pogarell , HJ Moller , G Juckel , U Hegerl (2004). Integration of fMRI and simultaneous EEG: towards a comprehensive understanding of localization and time-course of brain activity in target detection. NeuroImage 22, 8394.

RD Pascual-Marqui , CM Michel , D Lehmann (1994). Low resolution electromagnetic tomography: a new method for localizing electrical activity in the brain. International Journal of Psychophysiology 18, 4965.

DA Pizzagalli , LL Greischar , RJ Davidson (2003). Spatio-temporal dynamics of brain mechanisms in aversive classical conditioning: high-density event-related potential and brain electrical tomography analyses. Neuropsychologia 41, 184194.

DA Pizzagalli , TR Oakes , AS Fox , MK Chung , CL Larson , HC Abercrombie , SM Schaefer , RM Benca , RJ Davidson (2004). Functional but not structural subgenual prefrontal cortex abnormalities in melancholia. Molecular Psychiatry 9, 393405.

G Pourtois , ES Dan , D Grandjean , D Sander , P Vuilleumier (2005). Enhanced extrastriate visual response to bandpass spatial frequency filtered fearful faces: time course and topographic evoked-potentials mapping. Human Brain Mapping 26, 6579.

JA Sposari , RM Rapee (2007). Attentional bias toward facial stimuli under conditions of social threat in socially phobic and nonclinical participants. Cognitive Therapy and Research 31, 2337.

M Stolarova , A Keil , S Moratti (2006). Modulation of the C1 visual event-related component by conditioned stimuli: evidence for sensory plasticity in early affective perception. Cerebral Cortex 16, 876887.

T Straube , IT Kolassa , M Glauer , HJ Mentzel , WHR Miltner (2004). Effect of task conditions on brain responses to threatening faces in social phobics: an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Biological Psychiatry 56, 921930.

M Streit , J Dammers , S Simsek-Kraues , J Brinkmeyer , W Wolwer , A Ioannides (2003). Time course of regional brain activations during facial emotion recognition in humans. Neuroscience Letters 342, 101104.

D Zumsteg , A Friedman , RA Wennberg , HG Wieser (2005). Source localization of mesial temporal interictal epileptiform discharges: correlation with intracranial foramen ovale electrode recordings. Clinical Neurophysiology 116, 28102818.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 2
Total number of PDF views: 110 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 271 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.