Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2015

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



The psychoevolutionary theory of social anxiety disorder (SAD) predicts that individuals with SAD will avoid eye contact to communicate submissiveness. However, direct testing of gaze avoidance in individuals with higher social anxiety through behavioral observation or measurement has produced mixed findings. The goals of this dissertation are to test one of the components of the psychoevolutionary theory, namely, that gaze avoidance is employed by people with SAD, as well as to test whether positive affect may play a role in regulating gaze avoidance. Specifically, based on prior research supporting the role of positive affect in regulating exploratory behavior, I hypothesized that positive affect would mediate the relationship between diagnosis and eye contact.

A sample of community participants who either met criteria for generalized social anxiety disorder (GSADs; n = 65) or showed no signs of the disorder (NOSADs; n = 50) completed conversation tasks with a friend in which they took turns discussing a personal characteristic to change (social support conversations). In between the two social support conversations, participants also completed a conversation in which they discussed something that the primary participant wanted the friend to change (conflict conversation). The conversations were recorded and coded for amount of eye contact.

Diagnosis significantly predicted eye contact in two out of the three conversations such that participants with GSAD made less eye contact than participants with NOSAD, ps < .012. This effect was especially apparent for GSAD participants who were randomly assigned to discuss something they would like to change after the conflict conversation. Against expectation, positive affect did not significantly mediate the relationship between diagnosis and eye contact, p = .188.

The current study’s finding of higher gaze avoidance in individuals with GSAD is the first behavioral observation study to find such a difference in a diagnosed sample. It appears that the effect was strongest during the conflict conversation and the second social support conversation. I theorize that gaze avoidance increased once fears of rejection were activated and that this influence continued into the final conversation, particularly for GSAD participants assigned to discuss a personal characteristic to change in this conversation.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Thomas L Rodebaugh

Committee Members

Brian D Carpenter, Thomas F Oltmanns, Renee J Thompson, Andrew P Knight,


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