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Psychologists receive grant for social anxiety research

“We are proud and happy to receive this grant. It will enable us to do truly innovative fundamental research with a direct link to practical applications.” Michiel Westenberg is looking forward to investigate the effects of age and social anxiety on eye-contact. Together with Esther van den Bos he has received a grant to do so from the national funding agency NWO, in the Open Competition for Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).

The project builds upon the PhD project of Jiemiao Chen, supervised by developmental psychologists Michiel Westenberg and Esther van den Bos. Chen is also the intended post-doc on the NWO-project.

Do you look me in the eye when I am talking to you? Effects of age and social anxiety
prof. dr. P.M. Westenberg (LEI)

Social anxiety concerns negative evaluation and rejection by others. Socially anxious adults avoid eye-contact, which may inadvertently maintain or aggravate their anxiety. Little is known about (avoidance of) eye-contact in childhood and adolescence. We will compare eye-contact between children and adolescents with and without social anxiety problems to clarify both normal development of eye-contact and what goes wrong in socially anxious youth. In addition to the total duration of eye-contact, we will compare specific gaze patterns, such as to what extent (non) socially anxious children and adolescents follow implicit rules relating gaze behavior to turn-taking in a conversation.

Gaze Behaviour

Chen’s PhD project investigated the influence of social anxiety (an extreme form of shyness) on young adults’ gaze behaviour. Gaze behaviour was measured in various situation, using eye-tracking glasses. The results indicated that, in people with high levels of social anxiety, gaze behaviour is strongly influenced by the nature of the situation. One of the situations created by Chen is a situation in which participants had a conversation to get acquainted with a stranger. A similar situation will now be used in the study with children and adolescents.


Recent research, including that of Chen, has provided converging evidence that adults with high levels of social anxiety make less eye-contact in social situations. At what age avoidance of eye-contact begins, is yet unknown. Indeed, gaze behaviour in general has hardly been studied in children and adolescents. Moreover, the temporal dynamics of eye-contact during a conversation largely remain to be discovered. 

 NWO Social Sciences and Humanities Domain

The aim of the Open Competition – SSH is to facilitate excellent, non-programmed, curiosity-driven research that primarily addresses a social sciences or humanities research question and research problem. This funding without any thematic conditions gives them the opportunity to carry out research into the subject of their own choice. Researchers could apply for a maximum budget of 750,000 euros. 
58 new projects start in the Open Competition – SSH


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