In a nutshell: Participants’ performance on a conflict resolution task was faster and more accurate after they viewed a negative emotional image

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In our daily lives, we frequently need to make decisions between different possible behaviours. Imagine pulling up to a traffic light as it changes from green to amber. Do you keep driving at the same speed, slow down or speed up?

Often when we make these decisions, we’re exposed to things around us that can influence our emotional state. As you approach that traffic light, for example, such environmental factors include your current speed, the distance to the light, other cars around you, your passengers, and even the music on the car stereo. Even though they may not seem important or relevant at the time, could these environmental and emotional factors also influence your decisions?

Scientists have many – often contradictory – theories about how emotions influence our ability to resolve conflicts between possible behavioural options. Some studies have suggested that emotions affect our arousal levels, which in turn influence our behaviour. However, few researchers have looked specifically at the effect of background emotional information.

Brain Function CoE investigators Daniel Fehring, Marcello Rosa and Farshad Mansouri, along with a colleague from Monash University, decided to do just that, using images as sources of background emotional information.

To test how this information might influence a person’s ability to make decisions between conflicting options, the researchers used a computerized Wisconsin Card Sorting Test. In each trial of this test, participants need to match symbols of different shape and colour. However, the participants are not told which matching rule they need to apply – for example, matching symbols by colour or by shape – only whether each choice is right or wrong. The matching rule changes without notice through the task, so the participants have to use trial and error to deduce the currently relevant rule.

At the start of each trial, an image featuring either positive, negative or neutral content was shown to the participants. The researchers also monitored the participants’ arousal levels in each trial by measuring the level of sweat secretion on the participants’ fingers.

The researchers found that the emotional content of the images did affect participants’ performance on the test. When the participants were shown negative images before a trial, their rule-based matching was more accurate and their response times were faster than when they saw positive or neutral images. However, these images did not alter the participants’ arousal levels in each trial.

These results show that emotional information can directly influence high-level brain functions such as conflict resolution. This contradicts studies suggesting that emotional information influences these high-level functions indirectly by changing arousal levels, which in turn affect behaviour.

Next steps:
The researchers plan to examine the interaction between emotional stimuli and decision-making using younger and older participants, and emotional stimuli that are relevant to the task.

Fehring, D. J., Samandra, R., Rosa, M. G., & Mansouri, F. A. (2019). Negative emotional stimuli enhance conflict resolution without altering arousal. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, 282. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00282

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