Inconsistencies in spontaneous and intentional trait inferences

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This study explores the fMRI correlates of observers making trait inferences about other people under conflicting social cues. Participants were presented with several behavioral descriptions involving an agent that implied a particular trait. The last behavior was either consistent or inconsistent with the previously implied trait. This was done under instructions that elicited either spontaneous trait inferences (‘read carefully’) or intentional trait inferences (‘infer a trait’). The results revealed that when the behavioral descriptions violated earlier trait implications, regardless of instruction, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) was more strongly recruited as well as the domain-general conflict network including the posterior medial frontal cortex (pmFC) and the right prefrontal cortex (rPFC). These latter two areas were more strongly activated under intentional than spontaneous instructions. These findings suggest that when trait-relevant behavioral information is inconsistent, not only is activity increased in the mentalizing network responsible for trait processing, but control is also passed to a higher level conflict monitoring network in order to detect and resolve the contradiction.

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