The presence of a culturally similar or dissimilar social partner affects neural responses to emotional stimuli

Kate A Woodcock, Dian Yu, Yi Liu, Shihui Han

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Emotional responding is sensitive to social context; however, little emphasis has been placed on the mechanisms by which social context effects changes in emotional responding.

OBJECTIVE: We aimed to investigate the effects of social context on neural responses to emotional stimuli to inform on the mechanisms underpinning context-linked changes in emotional responding.

DESIGN: We measured event-related potential (ERP) components known to index specific emotion processes and self-reports of explicit emotion regulation strategies and emotional arousal. Female Chinese university students observed positive, negative, and neutral photographs, whilst alone or accompanied by a culturally similar (Chinese) or dissimilar researcher (British).

RESULTS: There was a reduction in the positive versus neutral differential N1 amplitude (indexing attentional capture by positive stimuli) in the dissimilar relative to alone context. In this context, there was also a corresponding increase in amplitude of a frontal late positive potential (LPP) component (indexing engagement of cognitive control resources). In the similar relative to alone context, these effects on differential N1 and frontal LPP amplitudes were less pronounced, but there was an additional decrease in the amplitude of a parietal LPP component (indexing motivational relevance) in response to positive stimuli. In response to negative stimuli, the differential N1 component was increased in the similar relative to dissimilar and alone (trend) context.

CONCLUSION: These data suggest that neural processes engaged in response to emotional stimuli are modulated by social context. Possible mechanisms for the social-context-linked changes in attentional capture by emotional stimuli include a context-directed modulation of the focus of attention, or an altered interpretation of the emotional stimuli based on additional information proportioned by the context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20500
Number of pages22
JournalSocial Affective Neuroscience and Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Event related potential; emotion; emotion regulation; interpersonal context; social context


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