There has been burgeoning interest in how people with high social anxiety (HSA) process nonverbal emotional information. But the bulk of this research has zoomed in on facial expressions, leaving gesture interpretation – particularly the interplay between facial expressions and gestures – largely unexplored. A recent study from Wenzhou University offers fresh insights into this under-researched domain. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The study distinguished between individuals with high and low social anxiety (HSA and LSA respectively) using the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale scores. A total of 150 participants, primarily university students, were recruited through online advertising portals.
Videos of faces, gestures, and a combination of both served as stimuli in a multifactor mixed design. Key findings included a faster recognition of gestures compared to faces, enhanced attention to gestures – especially negative ones – and the contextual effect of combined face-gesture cues on processing.
When the emotional undertones of faces and gestures aligned, they were recognized more quickly. However, when they were incongruent, gestures carried more weight in the processing of facial emotions. This suggests that for those with HSA, the interpretation of facial expressions may be significantly influenced by concurrent gestures.
Interestingly, this research challenges prior assumptions. Contrary to previous studies that gave facial expressions an edge in emotion recognition, this study found gestures to be recognised more quickly. This underscores the idea that facial expressions might not always be the primary cue for emotion judgement.
In scenarios where participants encountered both face and gesture cues, there was a notable increase in cognitive load. This was evident in the prolonged response times in the combined presentation compared to singular cues. More so, negative gestures received quicker and more focused attention than negative facial expressions.
Drawing on earlier research, individuals with HSA often display a bias towards negative faces, particularly threatening ones. This inclination is thought to stem from inadequate information processing or a possible misunderstanding of the stimulus’s implied meaning. This study confirmed some degree of bias in HSA individuals toward negative cues, predominantly gestures, though the difference when compared to the LSA group wasn’t statistically significant.
The study has shed light on the interplay of facial expressions and gestures in the realm of emotional processing. The results emphasize the significant role gestures play, especially in situations where facial and gesture cues are incongruent. As this is a relatively nascent field of study, these findings serve as a foundation for further exploration. Future research might delve deeper into how individual differences, cultural backgrounds, and even specific types of gestures influence emotional processing in those with social anxiety.