Prediction errors to emotional expressions: the roles of the amygdala in social referencing

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Social referencing paradigms in humans and observational learning paradigms in animals suggest that emotional expressions are important for communicating valence. It has been proposed that these expressions initiate stimulus-reinforcement learning. Relatively little is known about the role of emotional expressions in reinforcement learning, particularly in the context of social referencing. In this study, we examined object valence learning in the context of a social referencing paradigm. Participants viewed objects and faces that turned toward the objects and displayed a fearful, happy or neutral reaction to them, while judging the gender of these faces. Notably, amygdala activation was larger when the expressions following an object were less expected. Moreover, when asked, participants were both more likely to want to approach, and showed stronger amygdala responses to, objects associated with happy relative to objects associated with fearful expressions. This suggests that the amygdala plays two roles in social referencing: (i) initiating learning regarding the valence of an object as a function of prediction errors to expressions displayed toward this object and (ii) orchestrating an emotional response to the object when value judgments are being made regarding this object.

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