Anxious People Jump to Emotional Conclusions

– Posted in: Anxiety

A recent study has found that highly anxious adults can perceive changes in facial expressions much faster than adults who are not anxious. 

But they jump to emotional conclusions based on a quick glance of the facial expression of others.

And highly anxious adults may make more errors in judgement and perpetuate a cycle of conflict and misunderstanding in their relationships.

Co-author R. Chris Fraley, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois said, 

[H]ighly anxious individuals — people who are very insecure about their relationships — are more vigilant in monitoring the facial cues of others, but also make more mistakes in interpreting the emotional states behind facial expressions.

How the study was conducted

Fraley and his collaborators asked participants to view movies of faces in which the expression gradually changed from emotional to neutral, or vice versa. This was to investigate the relationship between emotional reaction and perception of facial cues. The participants were instructed to stop the movie at the point at which the expression had changed. 

The study’s results

Fraley said,

We found that highly anxious people tended to judge the change in facial expressions faster than less-anxious people. Importantly, highly anxious individuals also tended to make more perceptual errors than less-anxious individuals.

Highly anxious adults jump to emotional conclusions

Highly anxious adults were more sensitive and much more likely to jump to emotional conclusions, thus undermining their ability to perceive emotions accurately.

However, when highly anxious adults were forced to take the same amount of time as everybody else, they were able to judge emotional states more accurately than less-anxious adults.

Fraley commented,

This “hair trigger” style of perceptual sensitivity may be one reason why highly anxious people experience greater conflict in their relationships. The irony is that they have the ability to make their judgments more accurately than less-anxious people, but, because they are so quick to make judgments about others’ emotions, they tend to mistakenly infer other people’s emotional states and intentions.

With Fraley, the paper’s co-authors are psychologist Paula M. Niedenthal at the National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France, and Illinois graduate students Michael Marks, Claudia Brumbaugh and Amanda Vicary. The researchers reported their findings in the August, 2006 issue of the Journal of Personality.

What do you think?

I can think of many scenarios in my life where my jumping to emotional conclusions precipitated “undesired results.” How much emotional strife and bickering could be avoided if we just acknowledged that we jump to conclusions based on half-perceived facial expressions! 

  • Have you had experiences where someone jumped to conclusions based on your facial expression?
  • What do you think of science that only “proves” what everybody knew all along?

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Resources used in this post:

Kloeppel, James E. (2006, July 17). Anxious adults judge facial cues faster, but less accurately. Retrieved June 25, 2008 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Web site:

Nauert, Rick. (2006, July 18). Anxious Adults Quick to Judgment. Retrieved July 1, 2008 from Psych Central Web site:

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deidra February 24, 2013, 12:10 am

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