A large literature in social neuroscience has associated the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) with the processing of self-related information. However, only recently have social neuroscience studies begun to consider the large behavioral literature showing a strong self-positivity bias, and these studies have mostly focused on its correlates during self-related judgments and decision making. We carried out a functional MRI (fMRI) study to ask whether the mPFC would show effects of the self-positivity bias in a paradigm that probed participants’ self-concept without any requirement of explicit self-judgment. We presented social vignettes that were either self-relevant or non-self-relevant with a neutral, positive, or negative outcome described in the second sentence. In previous work using event-related potentials, this paradigm has shown evidence of a self-positivity bias that influences early stages of semantically processing incoming stimuli. In the present fMRI study, we found evidence for this bias within the mPFC: an interaction between self-relevance and valence, with only positive scenarios showing a self vs other effect within the mPFC. We suggest that the mPFC may play a role in maintaining a positively-biased self-concept and discuss the implications of these findings for the social neuroscience of the self and the role of the mPFC.
In this study, we used event-related potentials to examine how different dimensions of emotion—valence and arousal—influence different stages of word processing under different task demands. In two experiments, two groups of participants viewed the same single emotional and neutral words while carrying out different tasks. In both experiments, valence (pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral) was fully crossed with arousal (high and low). We found that the task made a substantial contribution to how valence and arousal modulated the late positive complex (LPC), which is thought to reflect sustained evaluative processing (particularly of emotional stimuli). When participants performed a semantic categorization task in which emotion was not directly relevant to task performance, the LPC showed a larger amplitude for high-arousal than for low-arousal words, but no effect of valence. In contrast, when participants performed an overt valence categorization task, the LPC showed a large effect of valence (with unpleasant words eliciting the largest positivity), but no effect of arousal. These data show not only that valence and arousal act independently to influence word processing, but that their relative contributions to prolonged evaluative neural processes are strongly influenced by the situational demands (and by individual differences, as revealed in a subsequent analysis of subjective judgments).
A large body of social psychological research suggests that we think quite positively of ourselves, often unrealistically so. Research on this 'self-positivity bias' has relied mainly on self-report and behavioral measures, but these can suffer from a number of problems including confounds that arise from the desire to present oneself well. What has not been clearly assessed is whether the self-positivity bias influences the processing of incoming information as it unfolds in real time. In this study, we used event-related potentials to address this question. Participants read two-sentence social vignettes that were either self- or other-relevant. Pleasant words in self-relevant contexts evoked a smaller negativity between 300 and 500 ms (the N400 time window) than the same words in other-relevant contexts, suggesting that comprehenders were more likely to expect positive information when a scenario referred to themselves. This finding indicates that the self-positivity bias is available online, acting as a general schema that directly influences real-time comprehension.
We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to examine the interactions between task, emotion, and contextual self-relevance on processing words in social vignettes. Participants read scenarios that were in either third person (other-relevant) or second person (self-relevant) and we recorded ERPs to a neutral, pleasant, or unpleasant critical word. In a previously reported study (Fields and Kuperberg, 2012) with these stimuli, participants were tasked with producing a third sentence continuing the scenario. We observed a larger LPC to emotional words than neutral words in both the self-relevant and other-relevant scenarios, but this effect was smaller in the self-relevant scenarios because the LPC was larger on the neutral words (i.e., a larger LPC to self-relevant than other-relevant neutral words). In the present work, participants simply answered comprehension questions that did not refer to the emotional aspects of the scenario. Here we observed quite a different pattern of interaction between self-relevance and emotion: the LPC was larger to emotional vs. neutral words in the self-relevant scenarios only, and there was no effect of self-relevance on neutral words. Taken together, these findings suggest that the LPC reflects a dynamic interaction between specific task demands, the emotional properties of a stimulus, and contextual self-relevance. We conclude by discussing implications and future directions for a functional theory of the emotional LPC.
Words that are semantically congruous with their preceding discourse context are easier to process than words that are semantically incongruous with their context. This facilitation of semantic processing is reflected by an attenuation of the N400 event-related potential (ERP). We asked whether this was true of emotional words in emotional contexts where discourse congruity was conferred through emotional valence. ERPs were measured as 24 participants read twosentence scenarios with critical words that varied by emotion (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) and congruity (congruous or incongruous). Semantic predictability, constraint, and plausibility were comparable across the neutral and emotional scenarios. As expected, the N400 was smaller to neutral words that were semantically congruous (vs. incongruous) with their neutral discourse context. No such N400 congruity effect was observed on emotional words following emotional discourse contexts. Rather, the amplitude of the N400 was small to all emotional words (pleasant and unpleasant), regardless of whether their emotional valence was congruous with the valence of their emotional discourse context. However, consistent with previous studies, the emotional words produced a larger late positivity than did the neutral words. These data suggest that comprehenders bypassed deep semantic processing of valence-incongruous emotional words within the N400 time window, moving rapidly on to evaluate the words’ motivational significance.
Accurately communicating self-relevant and emotional information is a vital function of language, but we have little idea about how these factors impact normal discourse comprehension. In an event-related potential (ERP) study, we fully crossed self-relevance and emotion in a discourse context. Two-sentence social vignettes were presented either in the third or the second person (previous work has shown that this influences the perspective from which mental models are built). ERPs were time-locked to a critical word toward the end of the second sentence which was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant (e.g., A man knocks on Sandra's/your hotel room door. She/You see(s) that he has agift/tray/gunin his hand.). We saw modulation of early components (P1, N1, and P2) by self-relevance, suggesting that a self-relevant context can lead to top-down attentional effects during early stages of visual processing. Unpleasant words evoked a larger late positivity than pleasant words, which evoked a larger positivity than neutral words, indicating that, regardless of self-relevance, emotional words are assessed as motivationally significant, triggering additional or deeper processing at post-lexical stages. Finally, self-relevance and emotion interacted on the late positivity: a larger late positivity was evoked by neutral words in self-relevant, but not in non-self-relevant, contexts. This may reflect prolonged attempts to disambiguate the emotional valence of ambiguous stimuli that are relevant to the self. More broadly, our findings suggest that the assessment of emotion and self-relevance are not independent, but rather that they interactively influence one another during word-by-word language comprehension.
Schizophrenia is associated with abnormalities in emotional processing and social cognition. However, it remains unclear whether patients show abnormal neurophysiological responses during fast, online appraisals of the emotional meaning of social information. To examine this question, event-related potentials (ERPs) were collected while 18 schizophrenia patients and 18 demographically matched controls evaluated 2-sentence vignettes describing negative, positive, or neutral social situations. ERPs were time locked to a critical word (CW) in the second sentence that conferred emotional valence. A late positivity effect to emotional (vs neutral) CWs was seen in both groups (in controls, to negative and positive CWs; in patients, to negative CWs only). However, the controls showed a greater late positivity effect to the negative and positive (vs neutral) CWs than the schizophrenia patients at mid-posterior (negative vs neutral) and at right posterior peripheral (positive vs neutral) sites. These between-group differences arose from reduced amplitudes of the late positivity to the negative and positive CWs in the patients relative to the controls; there was no difference between the 2 groups in the amplitude of the late positivity to the neutral CWs. These findings suggest that schizophrenia is associated with a specific neural deficit during the online evaluation of emotionally valent, socially relevant information.
A cardinal feature of schizophrenia is the poor comprehension, or misinterpretation, of the emotional meaning of social interactions and events, which can sometimes take the form of a persecutory delusion. It has been shown that the comprehension of the emotional meaning of the social world involves a midline paralimbic cortical network. However, the function of this network during emotional appraisals in patients with schizophrenia is not well understood. In this study, hemodynamic responses were measured in 14 patients with schizophrenia and 18 healthy subjects during the evaluation of descriptions of social situations with negative, positive, and neutral affective valence. The healthy and schizophrenia groups displayed opposite patterns of responses to emotional and neutral social situations within the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices--healthy participants showed greater activity to the emotional compared to the neutral situations, while patients exhibited greater responses to the neutral compared to the emotional situations. Moreover, the magnitude of the response within bilateral cingulate gyri to the neutral social stimuli predicted delusion severity in the patients with schizophrenia. These findings suggest that impaired functioning of cortical midline structures in schizophrenia may underlie faulty interpretations of social events, contributing to delusion formation.
Although the neurocognitive mechanisms of nonaffective language comprehension have been studied extensively, relatively less is known about how the emotional meaning of language is processed. In this study, electrophysiological responses to affectively positive, negative, and neutral words, presented within nonconstraining, neutral contexts, were evaluated under conditions of explicit evaluation of emotional content (Experiment 1) and passive reading (Experiment 2). In both experiments, a widely distributed Late Positivity was found to be larger to negative than to positive words (a "negativity bias"). In addition, in Experiment 2, a small, posterior N400 effect to negative and positive (relative to neutral) words was detected, with no differences found between N400 magnitudes to negative and positive words. Taken together, these results suggest that comprehending the emotional meaning of words following a neutral context requires an initial semantic analysis that is relatively more engaged for emotional than for nonemotional words, whereas a later, more extended, attention-modulated process distinguishes the specific emotional valence (positive vs. negative) of words. Thus, emotional processing networks within the brain appear to exert a continuous influence, evident at several stages, on the construction of the emotional meaning of language.