What Can Early Social Cognition Teach Us about the Development of Social Anxieties?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Social anxiety is one of the most prevalent psychological disorders that affects up to 13% of individuals in Western society across their lifetime. The debut of the disorder can be recorded as early as the age of 2.5 years. The tendency for social anxiety appears to be stable across the lifespan, and it seems to be stable across life. One of the main impairments is a marked and persistent fear of one or more social and performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. This is usually associated with a distorted processing of social information and social situations. We find that remarkably, links have not been made between early social-cognitive development and later anxiety disorders in preschool children. Research with adults provides evidence for social information processing impairments in those with social anxiety. The bulk of evidence comes from face perception. It is shown that the impairments manifest both in the exacerbation (e.g. for harsh and angry expressions) and lack (e.g. avoidance of foveal fixation) of face processing for emotional expressivity. The paper will argue on how early social information processing (e.g. contingency detection, face and eye gaze perception) could be used to explain and understand the early onset of social anxieties.

KEYWORDS: social cognition, social anxiety, face processing

OVERVIEW

Broadly defined, social cognition among humans refers to the ability to understand other people. It involves the ability to monitor, predict and understand others' behaviours and actions. Research on early social cognition has advanced rapidly over the past years. It is now known that in the first year, infants systematically engage in joint attention (Striano, Reid, & Hoehl, 2006), discriminate intentional from accidental actions (Behne, Carpenter, Call, & Tomasello, 2005), and interpret observed actions as rational or irrational (Gergely, Nádasdy, Csibra, & Bíró, 1995). As the definition of social cognition is so very broad, we will focus on four key topics within early social cognition research that have special relevance for understanding the ontogeny and nature of social anxiety. The key topics are (1) Early social interactions; (2) Contingency detection; (3) Face and gaze processing and (4) Detecting goals and intentions of others. After providing an overview of important aspects of early social-cognitive development, we will overview the nature of anxiety and anxiety disorders in preschool children, and we will proceed to outline what we see to be key relationships between the ontogeny and manifestation of anxiety disorders and fundamental components of social cognition in early development.

Motivation for the production of this paper is due in part to new models outlining how social anxiety may function (e.g. Rapee & Spence, 2004; Clark, 2001; Hirsch, Clark, & Mathews, 2006). These models in our view may benefit from relations between social anxiety and the assessment of early social-cognitive processing. It is, however, of note that we focus only on aspects of social cognition. We fully acknowledge that there must be relations between social anxiety and other factors, such as temperamental characteristics of the individual. These other aspects are not discussed in this paper due to space constraints, despite undoubtedly having a key part to play in the development of anxiety disorders.

KEY COMPONENTS IN EARLY SOCIAL COGNITION

Early social interactions

One component of social cognition that has been widely investigated in the developmental sciences is infant sensitivity to triadic attention. This is when an infant attends to a location or object while continuously referencing this object or location to an interaction with another person. It has been found that triadic attention is necessary for a wide range of human social cognitive skills, such as social referencing (Moses, Baldwin, Rosicky, & Tidball, 2001), and language learning (Morales, Mundy, & Rojas, 1998; Baldwin, 1993). …