Attention bias modification (ABM) can reduce anxiety and attentional bias towards threatening stimuli, but evidence of its usefulness as a potential intervention for socially anxious individuals has been mixed. Eye contact avoidance, a maladaptive attentional strategy in social anxiety disorder (SAD), has yet to be targeted by ABM research.
This study sought to establish whether a new ABM training paradigm could increase attentional deployment towards eyes and what effect this would have on social and gaze-related anxiety.
Participants (n = 23) recruited through adverts calling for people who felt anxious in social situations completed either a novel ABM training task designed to induce attentional bias towards images of eyes over images of noses, or control training. Data on response times (RTs), accuracy of responses, gaze behaviour (using an eye tracker) and scores on clinical measures of social and gaze-related anxiety were collected before and after both training tasks.
ABM training produced a greater number of initial saccades towards eye images than did the control task, indicating an induced shift in early attentional deployment. ABM training was also associated with a marginal increase in fixation durations on eye images. No effect was observed on RTs or social and gaze-related anxiety.
Our results indicate that ABM can alter the gaze behaviour of socially anxious individuals. They also highlight the importance of eye tracking to ABM research, because it was more sensitive than analyses of RTs to changes in early attentional deployment.