Anxious adults judge facial cues faster, but less accurately

Champaign, Ill. -- Adults who are highly anxious can perceive changes in facial expressions more quickly than adults who are less anxious, a new study shows. By jumping to emotional conclusions, however, highly anxious adults may make more errors in judgment and perpetuate a cycle of conflict and misunderstanding in their relationships.

"Facial cues play an important role in how individuals perceive information that is relevant to attachment concerns," said study co-author R. Chris Fraley, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Our findings suggest that highly anxious individuals – people who are very insecure about their relationships – are more vigilant in monitoring the facial cues of others, but also make more mistakes in interpreting the emotional states behind facial expressions."

To investigate the relationship between attachment style and perception of facial cues, Fraley and his collaborators asked participants to view movies of faces in which the expression gradually changed from emotional to neutral, or vice versa. The participants were instructed to stop the movie at the point at which the expression had changed. The researchers report their findings in the August issue of the Journal of Personality.

"We found that highly anxious people tended to judge the change in facial expressions faster than less-anxious people," Fraley said. "Importantly, highly anxious individuals also tended to make more perceptual errors than less-anxious individuals."

Highly anxious adults were more sensitive and much more likely to jump to emotional conclusions, thus underpinning their ability to perceive emotions accurately, the researchers found. Indeed, when highly anxious adults were forced to take the same amount of time as everyone else, they were able to judge emotional states more accurately than less-anxious adults.

"This 'hair trigger' style of perceptual sensitivity may be one reason why highly anxious people experience greater conflict in their relationships," Fraley said. "The irony is that they have the ability to make their judgments more accurately than less-anxious people, but, because they are so quick to make judgments about others' emotions, they tend to mistakenly infer other people's emotional states and intentions."

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With Fraley, the paper's co-authors are psychologist Paula M. Niedenthal at the National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France, and Illinois graduate students Michael Marks, Claudia Brumbaugh and Amanda Vicary.

Editor's note: To reach Chris Fraley, call 217-333-3486; e-mail: rcfraley@uiuc.edu


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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