What is it about?

People regulate their interpersonal space appropriately to obtain a comfortable distance for interacting with others. Socially anxious individuals are especially prone to discomfort from and fear of physical closeness, leading them to prefer a greater interpersonal distance from others. Previous studies also indicate that fear can enhance the threat-related elements of a threatening stimulus. For example, spider phobia is associated with estimating spiders as bigger and faster than they actually are. Nonetheless, it is still unclear whether the preference of those with social anxiety disorder (SAD) to maintain greater distance from others is associated with biased estimations of interpersonal distance. Materials and Methods: 87 participants (44 clinically diagnosed with SAD and 43 control) performed validated computerized and ecological tasks in a real-life setting while social space estimations and preferences were measured. Results: Participants with SAD felt comfortable when maintaining a greater distance from unfamiliar others compared to the control group and estimated unfamiliar others to be closer to them than they actually were. Moreover, the estimation bias predicted their preferred distance from strangers, indicating a strong association between estimation bias severity and actual approach-avoidance behavior. Conclusion: Our findings indicate that distance estimation bias underlies avoidance behavior in SAD, suggesting the involvement of a new cognitive mechanism in personal space regulation.

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Why is it important?

The combined results of our study represent the first demonstration of biased estimation of interpersonal distance in SAD, suggesting that the estimation bias plays a role in regulating interpersonal distance during social interaction. These innovative findings have important implications for the understanding of avoidance behavior.

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This page is a summary of: Biased distance estimation in social anxiety disorder: A new avenue for understanding avoidance behavior, Depression and Anxiety, August 2020, Wiley, DOI: 10.1002/da.23086.
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