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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 May;11(5):775-82. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw003. Epub 2016 Feb 29.

Interpreting ambiguous social cues in unpredictable contexts.

Author information

Cognitive Science, US Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), Natick, MA,
Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE.
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, and.
Cognitive Science, US Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), Natick, MA, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.


Unpredictable environments can be anxiety-provoking and elicit exaggerated emotional responses to aversive stimuli. Even neutral stimuli, when presented in an unpredictable fashion, prime anxiety-like behavior and elicit heightened amygdala activity. The amygdala plays a key role in initiating responses to biologically relevant information, such as facial expressions of emotion. While some expressions clearly signal negative (anger) or positive (happy) events, other expressions (e.g. surprise) are more ambiguous in that they can predict either valence, depending on the context. Here, we sought to determine whether unpredictable presentations of ambiguous facial expressions would bias participants to interpret them more negatively. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging and facial electromyography (EMG) to characterize responses to predictable vs unpredictable presentations of surprised faces. We observed moderate but sustained increases in amygdala reactivity to predictable presentations of surprised faces, and relatively increased amygdala responses to unpredictable faces that then habituated, similar to previously observed responses to clearly negative (e.g. fearful) faces. We also observed decreased corrugator EMG responses to predictable surprised face presentations, similar to happy faces, and increased responses to unpredictable surprised face presentations, similar to angry faces. Taken together, these data suggest that unpredictability biases people to interpret ambiguous social cues negatively.


Unpredictability; amygdala; emotion; facial expression

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