Facial expressions are a potent source of information about how others evaluate our behavior. In the present study, we investigated how the internal performance-monitoring system, as reflected by error-related negativity (ERN), is affected by external cues of positive (happy faces) or negative evaluation (disgusted faces) of performance. We hypothesized that if the social context indeed impacts on how we evaluate our own performance, we would expect that the same performance error would result in larger ERN amplitudes in the context of negative evaluation than in a positive evaluation context. Our findings confirm our predictions: ERN amplitudes were largest when stimuli consisted of disgusted faces, compared to when stimuli consisted of happy faces. Importantly, ERN amplitudes in our control condition, in which sad faces were used as stimuli, were no different from the positive evaluation condition, ruling out the possibility that effects in the negative evaluation condition resulted from negative affect per se. We suggest that external social cues of approval or disapproval impact on how we evaluate our own performance at a very basic level: The brain processes errors that are associated with social disapproval as more motivationally salient, signaling the need for additional cognitive resources to prevent subsequent failures.

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doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2011.556813, hdl.handle.net/1765/30906
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Online)
Erasmus Research Institute of Management

Boksem, M., Ruys, K. I., & Aarts, H. (2011). Facing disapproval: Performance monitoring in a social context. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Online), 6(4), 360–368. doi:10.1080/17470919.2011.556813