The on-line processing of socio-emotional information in prototypical scenarios: inferences from brain potentials

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Little is known about the time course of the mechanisms involved in the on-line processing of socio-emotional information. We used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to investigate this issue using vignettes that described prototypical, social scenarios. An initial sentence established the social context and the following target sentence ended with a critical word that informed the reader of the character’s socio-emotional response to the situation. Critical words that mismatched rather than matched with a character’s expected feelings elicited a larger ERP negativity (N400) ∼200–500 ms after word onset, followed by a larger frontal positivity. Dipole source modeling results indicated that an anterior temporal lobe source accounted for the N400-like effect, which we attribute to the increased demands of integrating general knowledge about social situations (e.g. scripts) with personal- and context-specific information. An additional mediofrontal source contributed to the later ERP effect and presumably reflects high-level mindreading functions. Together, these findings indicate that readers rapidly infer and evaluate on-line a character’s likely socio-emotional response based on the prototypical information provided by the text.

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