In the 'Face' of Uncertainty:
Charting Variability in Response to Emotional Ambiguity
Maital Neta, CB3, University of Nebraska—Lincoln
Our daily lives are saturated with affective value (e.g., a visit from a friend, the ringing of an alarm clock, a beautiful sunset, a hot cup of coffee). When we encounter new information (new people, sounds, locations, flavors), we readily sort this information into emotional valence categories: good or bad, reward or threat, approach or avoid. Facial expressions, in particular, convey rich information about another person and the environment. Some expressions are clear-cut (angry face predicts threat/avoidance), whereas others are more ambiguous, because they can readily predict both rewarding or threatening outcomes. For example, a surprised facial expression is associated with both positive (a surprise visit from an old friend) and negative (hearing that a loved one was in a car accident) information. We and others have documented a wide range of individual differences in 'valence bias,' or the tendency to categorize ambiguous cues (e.g., surprised faces) as having a positive or negative valence. This bias appears to represent a trait-like individual difference, as it is stable across time and across information. Interestingly, despite these individual differences, we have proposed an initial negativity hypothesis, such that ambiguous cues initially activate a negative valence representation, and that a positive representation may require a putative regulatory mechanism to override the initial negativity. In this talk, I will discuss just a few of the approaches (behavioral, neuroimaging, developmental) that we have used in the lab to examine these individual differences in valence bias and to support our initial negativity hypothesis.
Dr. Neta is the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab. She received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from Dartmouth College in 2010, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Neurology at Washington University. Dr. Neta is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and is a faculty member in the Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior (CB3) at UNL. Her research capitalizes on a number of methods from psychology and neuroscience to examine ambiguity resolution in the domain of emotional facial expressions. Specifically, although some expressions provide clear predictive information that something good (e.g., happy) or bad (e.g., angry) will happen, other expressions, like surprise, have predicted both positive (e.g., birthday party) and negative (e.g., car accident) events for us in the past. When presented in the absence of contextual information, these ambiguously valenced expressions can be used to delineate a valence bias: ambiguous stimuli are stably interpreted negatively by some people and positively by others. The working hypothesis in the lab is that positivity requires regulation. In sum, her work uses neuroimaging (fMRI, resting state fMRI), psychophysiology, and behavioral techniques, and network analyses to examine individual differences in emotion processing and emotion regulation across the lifespan. This research is funded in part by an R01 from the National Institute of Mental Health and an NSF CAREER Award. She has received multiple academic achievement awards, including the Harold and Esther Edgerton Junior Faculty Award, and serves as Consulting Editor for Emotion and Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience.