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AICE members Julia Folz and Milica Nikolić published a new paper on attentional biases toward emotional facial expressions and their link to social anxiety and autistic traits.

Julia Folz and Milica Nikolić together with ​​​​​​Tom S. Roth and Mariska E. Kret recently published a paper on individual differences in attentional biases toward different emotional expressions (angry, happy, sad, and fearful versus neutral) and their links to social anxiety and autistic traits.

What’s adaptive to do in the current situation? Emotional expressions of others can be a useful guide (e.g., be careful) and have shown to receive prioritized attention. People differ in how strongly their attention is biased towards specific emotional expressions. For example, socially anxious individuals have been found to show an enhanced bias towards displays of anger(i.e., social threat). The eye region, as relevant carrier of emotional information, is typically avoided in individuals on the autism spectrum. Yet, less is known whether this also reflects in a generally blunted attentional bias toward emotional (vs. neutral) expressions. Using a dot-probe paradigm, we investigated attentional biases toward angry, happy, sad and fearful facial expressions. One emotional and one neutral expression were simultaneously presented on the left vs. right side of a touchscreen for 300ms. Participants had to tap on a black dot which either appeared behind the emotional (congruent) or neutral (incongruent) expression. In line with previous literature, they found an attentional bias toward all emotional expressions, namely significantly faster reaction times in congruent versus incongruent trials. We further examined whether individual differences in attentional biases can be explained by varying trait levels associated with social anxiety and autism spectrum conditions. Trait levels were assessed using the Autism Quotient and the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale. Unexpectedly, we could not confirm an overall positive link between social anxiety trait levels and the attentional bias toward angry expression. Only if autistic trait levels were low, an enhanced attentional bias with higher social anxiety trait levels could be observed. Higher autistic traits were only linked to a reduced bias toward happy faces in an exploratory Bayesian analysis. Yet, with higher autistic traits, reaction times were faster for trials including an angry expression and slower for trials including a sad expression. While people indeed seem to be biased toward emotional versus neutral facial expressions at early attentional stages, clinical trait scores cannot unequivocally predict which individual gets (more or less) caught by specific emotions.