Interactions between perceived emotions and executive attention in an interpersonal game

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The emotions displayed by others can be cues to predict their behavior. Happy expressions are usually linked to positive consequences, whereas angry faces are associated with probable negative outcomes. However, there are situations in which the expectations we generate do not hold. Here, control mechanisms must be put in place. We designed an interpersonal game in which participants received good or bad economic offers from several partners. A cue indicated whether the emotion of their partner could be trusted or not. Trustworthy partners with happy facial expressions were cooperative, and angry partners did not cooperate. Untrustworthy partners cooperated when their expression was angry and did not cooperate when they displayed a happy emotion. Event-Related Potential (ERP) results showed that executive attention already influenced the frontal N1. The brain initially processed emotional expressions regardless of their contextual meaning but by the N300, associated to affective evaluation, emotion was modulated by control mechanisms. Our results suggest a cascade of processing that starts with the instantiation of executive attention, continues by a default processing of emotional features and is then followed by an interaction between executive attention and emotional factors before decision-making and motor stages.

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