Trait inferences in goal-directed behavior: ERP timing and localization under spontaneous and intentional processing

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This study measured event-related potentials (ERPs) during multiple goal and trait inferences, under spontaneous or intentional instructions. Participants read sentences describing several goal-implying behaviors of a target person from which also a strong trait could be inferred or not. The last word of each sentence determined the consistency with the inference induced during preceding sentences. In comparison with behaviors that implied only a goal, stronger waveforms beginning at ∼150 ms were obtained when the behaviors additionally implied a trait. These ERPs showed considerable parallels between spontaneous and intentional inferences. This suggests that traits embedded in a stream of goal-directed behaviors were detected more rapidly and automatically than mere goals, irrespective of the participants’ spontaneous or intentional instructions. In line with this, source localization (LORETA) of the ERPs show predominantly activation in the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) during 150–200 ms, suggesting that goals were detected at that time interval. During 200–300 ms, activation was stronger at the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) for multiple goals and traits as opposed to goals only, suggesting that traits were inferred during this time window. A cued recall measure taken after the presentation of the stimulus material support the occurrence of goal and trait inferences and shows significant correlations with the neural components, indicating that these components are valid neural indices of spontaneous and intentional social inferences. The early detection of multiple goal and trait inferences is explained in terms of their greater social relevance, leading to privileged attention allocation and processing in the brain.

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