Symposia > Koban

The Neuroscience of Social Conflict and Action Monitoring

Chair:  Leonie Koban1 &  Elena Núñez-Castellar2

1 Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, and Laboratory for Neurology and Imaging of Cognition, University of Geneva, Switzerland
2 Department of Experimental Psychology, Ghent University, Belgium


The neural mechanism of top-down control have been mainly studied on an individual level and in single- subject settings. Cognitive conflicts and action errors activate medial prefrontal structures, which are thought to signal the need for adjustments in behavior and top-down control. More recently, there is a growing interest to study the brain circuits underlying performance and conflict monitoring in social settings. This symposium brings together researchers that use different experimental approaches, including error monitoring, economic games, and social persuasion, to study interactions between social cognition and top-down control. Using complementary methods, from ERPs, fMRI, to TMS, the different contributions will try to shed light on this emerging field: Elena Núñez Castellar will open the symposium by presenting ERP and behavioral data demonstrating how the observation of others’ errors modulates adaptations in behavior across different social settings. Next, Ellen de Bruijn will demonstrate the importance of social action control in healthy persons and its breakdown in clinical populations. Using the Ultimatum Game, Corrado Corradi-Dell’Acqua will show how fairness considerations affect the processing of conflicts for oneself and third parties. Vasily Klucharev will present evidence on how the human brain uses general performance monitoring circuits in order to adapt to group norms and social conflicts. Finally, Leonie Koban will talk about recent ERP and fMRI data, showing how social context and empathy for pain interact in affecting basic action monitoring mechanism.

Talk 1:

How monitoring other’s actions influences one’s own performance during social interactions

Elena Núñez-Castellar
Department of Experimental Psychology, Ghent University, Belgium.

Several ERP studies have recently shown that similar mechanisms for error processing are active in response to both self-generated errors and errors committed by others (Van Schie et al., 2005; Bates et al, 2005; Miltner et al., 2004). Nevertheless, how these mechanisms are associated with behavioral adjustments following error observation during social interactions has been seldom explored. In the talk I will present the results of a recent study in which by means of event-related potentials (ERPs) we investigated the link between the mechanisms involved in monitoring errors committed by others and the behavioral adaptations following them. The participants performed a social flanker task in cooperative and
competitive contexts. Monetary reward was offered to the best couples in the cooperative interaction and to the best participants in the competitive situation. ERP analyses revealed that the error related negativity (oERN) and the error positivity (oPe) might reflect distinct aspects of error processing and consequently be differently associated to reaction times (post-error slowing) adaptations after error observation.

Talk 2:

Social modulations of action control and adaptive behaviour

Ellen R.A. de Bruijn
Leiden University, Institute of Psychology, Unit of Clinical Psychology and Leiden Institute for Brain and
Cognition, Leiden, the Netherlands

Without often being consciously aware of it, we are involved in interactions with other people throughout the day. We greet our neighbors, meet with people at work, pass people in crowded shopping areas, or do the dishes together with our partner. When observing these social interactions in more detail, it is remarkable how complex the involved cognitive processes are in that individuals not only have to plan and monitor their own actions, but they also have to keep track of and anticipate the actions of the person they are interacting with. Moreover, they have to flexibly adapt their motor plans online to the behaviour and possible mistakes of their co-actors, generate adequate adaptive behaviour in response to their actions, and integrate the social context in which the interaction is taking place. Humans are social animals and adequate social behavior is thus crucial for efficient daily functioning. Consequently, disturbances in social behavior seriously impair one’s quality of life. Severe disturbed social behavior is importantly evident in different psychiatric disorders. Hence, investigating these clinical populations from a social neuroscience perspective may importantly advance our knowledge of these often still poorly understood disorders. I will present data from recent studies in which we investigated the cognitive and neural mechanisms of different forms of social adaptive behaviour in healthy individuals and in patients with psychiatric disorders characterized by serious deficits in social functioning, like psychopathy and major depression.

Talk 3:

Do I care for others’ money as much as for my own? Disentangling self- and fairness- related neural mechanisms involved in the Ultimatum Game.

Corrado Corradi-Dell’Acqua
NCCR Affective Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland

Rejections of unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game (UG) are commonly assumed to reflect negative emotional reactions (spite, anger) to a direct unfair treatment (Pillutla & Murnighan, 1996) and to be mediated by the activity of the anterior insula and medial prefrontal cortex (Sanfey et al., 2003; Koenigs & Tranel, 2007). We aimed to disentangle those neural mechanisms associated with direct personal involvement (i.e., elicited by being the target of an unfair proposal) from those associated with fairness considerations, such as the wish to discourage unfair behavior or social norm violations. We carried two studies in which we measured electrodermal and neural response when participants played as responders in UG, and compared the condition in which they played for themselves (classical UG) from a condition in which they played on behalf on an unknown person (third-party). Unfair offers were equally often rejected in both versions of the game. However, rejections were associated to enhanced electrodermal activity and neural signal in the medial prefrontal cortex only when participants were the direct target of unfairness. Instead, the left anterior insula was implicated rejections both during the classical and Third-Party UG. These results speak against an interpretation of rejection in terms as a negative reaction to a direct mistreatment, and favor instead a role of insular processes related to promoting fair behavior also towards confederates.

Talk 4:

Neurobiological mechanisms of social influence

Vasily Klucharev
Basel University, Department of Psychology, Basel, Switzerland

Humans often change their beliefs or behavior due to the behavior or opinions of others. We explored, with the use of various neuroimaging methods (fMRI, TMS, ERPs), whether social conformity is based on a general performance-monitoring mechanism. We tested the hypothesis that conflicts with a normative group opinion evoke activity of the posterior medial frontal cortex often associated with performance monitoring and subsequent adjustment of behavior. Using fMRI we showed that conflicts with group opinion triggered a neuronal response in the medial frontal cortex. The amplitude of this conflict-related signal predicted subsequent conforming behavioral adjustments. We also demonstrated that the transient downregulation of the posterior medial frontal cortex by theta-burst transcranial magnetic stimulation reduced conformity. Finally, we tested the hypothesis that conflicts with a normative group opinion evoke a feedback-related negativity (FRN) often associated with performance monitoring and subsequent adjustment of behavior. Indeed, a mismatch between individual and group opinions triggered a frontocentral negative deflection with the maximum at 200 ms, similar to FRN. Overall a conflict with a normative group opinion triggered a cascade of neuronal responses: from an earlier FRN response reflecting a conflict with the normative opinion to a later ERP component (peaking at 380 ms) reflecting a long-lasting conforming behavioral adjustment. In general, our results support the hypothesis that some forms of social influence are mediated by activity of the posterior medial frontal cortex as a part of the general performance-monitoring circuitry.

Talk 5:

Monitoring performance and social conflicts – Effects of relationship and (painful) consequences

Leonie Koban
NCCR Affective Sciences, and Laboratory for Neurology and Imaging of Cognition, University of
Geneva, Switzerland

Action monitoring has been extensively studied in single-subject settings, suggesting specific responses to errors in anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), lateral frontal areas, and anterior insula (AI). Performance errors
are also emotionally salient events and social context may influence their appraisal. In two experiments, we studied how one’s own and observed errors are processed in interpersonal settings. Using EEG, we tested the influence of cooperation vs. competition between participants taking turns in performing and observing a go/no-go task. ERPs indicate differential processing of observed errors depending on social context. Additionally, feedback-related responses were more pronounced in the cooperating player, suggesting higher social relevance of negative feedback. To investigate, how the brain processes actions causing painful consequences for other persons, we designed an fMRI experiment, where participants played a visual decision task in turns with a friend placed outside the scanner. Errors always led to monetary losses to both players, but were sometimes additionally associated with painful stimulation applied to the friend. This allowed to investigate the neural underpinnings of self- vs. other-generated errors (factor:  RESPONSIBILITY) which, in turn, might yield to vicarious experience of a painful vs. painless heat (factor: PAIN). Functional imaging results showed, consistently with previous studies, a main effect for PAIN in ACC and AI. Critically, AI was also associated with a significant PAIN*RESPONSIBILITY interaction, reflecting increased pain-related activations when errors were caused by oneself. By suggesting important interactions between empathic co-representation and error monitoring, these results illustrate the sensitivity of cognitive control mechanisms to social context factors.

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