The overarching goal of our research is to understand the mechanisms of emotional learning and regulation in social situations. In particular, we study the learning of fear and other aversions and how these processes interact with social cognition, decision-making, and attention, to produce behavior. Our research is motivated by a functional-evolutionary perspective, drawing on theory and methods from several disciplines, including cognitive neuroscience, learning theory, social psychology, and psychophysiology.
In our hypersocial species emotional learning often takes place in social contexts. Many of our fears and dislikes are about other people, and oftentimes these aversions are acquired through observing or interacting with others.
Learning About Others. There are reasons to expect that humans have evolved a cognitive-affective system to deal with the processing of social cues in order to forge alliances, navigate dominance hierarchies, and monitor in- and out-group individuals. We are currently using classical conditioning as a model to study the role of social cognition in the learning to fear and dislike other individuals. We have previously described a learning bias to male faces belonging to racial out-group versus in-group members similar to that shown to snakes and spiders versus neutral stimuli, but that this effect is inversely related to degree of close personal contact with individuals from the outgroup (Olsson et al., 2005; Olsson et al., submitted; Navarrete et al., 2009; Navarrete et al., 2012). Using similar learning paradigms, we are currently investigating the role of other social group categories, varying both perceptual features and familiarity of the target faces. In addition, we are examining the impact of more complex social cognitions (e.g. moral status and the attribution of the intention to harm) on the acquisition and change of aversions towards other individuals.
A related line of ongoing research uses simple interactive games developed by us to investigate the role in aversive learning of non-tactile social punishers, such as social exclusion and disapproving faces, and how such social punishers shape our behavior (Furth et al., 2009).
Punishment guided behavioral inhibition to social stimuli.. Our own behavior in social situations can have important emotional consequences. Depending on our goals and the anticipated consequences of our behavior we have to regulate our behavior by selecting and inhibiting behaviors as appropriate. With the aim to develop an experimental model of adaptive behavior in a rapidly changing social environment, we are currently studying how aversive feedback affects cognitive control and the inhibition of responses to social stimuli (e.g. Lindström et al., 2012). We have also extended the study of learning through feedback by the application of reinforcement models to various social learning situations.
Learning from others: Observational fear learning (OFL). Although fear of certain objects and situations might develop from personal aversive experience, the majority of fears may be attained vicariously without such direct experiences. Observational learning is an important means to attain information about potentially dangerous events without putting oneself at risk. We have earlier demonstrated that OFL draws on neural mechanisms partly overlapping with those engaged in Pavlovian conditioning, supporting the claim that the emotional expression of the observed person can serve as a social US comparable to a mild electric shock. However, OFL is also distinguished from Pavlovian learning by its engagement of brain regions processing social cognitions, such as empathy and mental state attributions (for a neural model of OFL, see Olsson & Phelps, 2007). We are currently extending this work by directly manipulating empathic appraisals to investigate the causal role of empathy and other mental state attributions on observational fear learning.
Observational fear extinction. Of immense clinical relevance is the change of already acquired fears. Analogous to the passive extinction of conditioned fear responses, social observation has been used to treat phobias and other psychiatric problems. We are currently investigating the behavioral and neural processes underlying observational extinction of learned fear (e.g. Olsson et al., 2011).
This line of interest emanates from our research on the regulation of fear through extinction and a growing literature suggesting that partially overlapping and interacting prefrontal neural networks are involved in both extinction and more active emotional regulation.
Recently, we found that the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) was jointly sensitive to increased cognitive demands in the attention and memory domains (Kompus et al., 2009). By contrast, increased demands in the emotion domain were associated with increased activity in medial prefrontal cortex along with decreased amygdala activity. The inverse relationship between these two structures is consistent with regulatory influences from the former on the latter, similarly to what have been reported during extinction of fear.
In a more recent study, we provided further evidence of the distinct roles of the dlPFC and other prefrontal areas in emotion regulation (Golkar et al., in revision). Using a more cognitively demanding emotion regulation task, this work demonstrated that the dlPFC indeed was activated during emotion regulation. However, activity in the dlPFC accompanied the regulation task independently of whether the regulation effort was targeted on negative or neutral stimuli, whereas activity in the vl PFC was uniquely related to regulation of negative stimuli. Following this, we suggest that the dlPFC may serve a more general role in emotion regulation by maintaining the cognitive demands of the regulation task, whereas the vl PFC is more specifically related to down-regulation of negative emotion.
Attention to faces. Providing a solution to unexplained discrepancies in the literature, a recent study from our lab has demonstrated that with real faces more rapid detection of angry than happy faces in a crowd of faces required that the face was male rather than female, and that the crowd of distractor faces were easily recognizable (“redundant”) e.g., by being familiar. With non-redundant crowds (e.g., individuals that that always differed between the displays used) both female and male faces were more rapidly detected when happy rather than angry (Öhman, Juth, & Lundqvist, 2010). This finding brings order to a complex literature and may be related to the sad fact that male violence is more commonly targeted on well-known rather than unknown individuals.
Evolutionary origin of attention to threat. Another important question concerns the origin of the disposition to attend to threat. Integrating paleontological, molecular, biogeographical, comparative behavior, and neuroscientific data, the Snake Detection Theory (SDT) (Isbell, 2005; 2007) argues that venomous snakes have been a major force in a evolutionary arms race with mammals shaping the primate visual system. Our group is currently testing the behavioral implications of this theory, showing that the detection of snakes (in pictures) is only minimally affected by commonly accepted visual restrictions related to peripheral presentation, and cluttered or short-duration displays. This is in stark contrast to the detection of another widely feared animal, spiders, which are unlikely to have provided an evolutionary threat to mammals.
The research of Arne Öhman has a long history, developing along several lines. The first line is the study of the acquisition and regulation (e.g. through extinction) of fear and other aversions. This line was pioneered by Öhman and coworkers (e.g., Öhman et al., 1976) who demonstrated enhanced fear conditioning to pictures of snakes or angry faces (compared to neutral stimuli). A second line of research demonstrated that emotional responses to fear-relevant stimuli could be elicited and learned independently of whether they were consciously recognized, i.e. they were “subconsciously mediated” (Esteves et al., 1994; Öhman & Soares, 1993; 1994; 1998). A third research line has documented that evolutionary fear relevant stimuli capture attention more effectively than neutral stimuli when presented in complex stimulus displays (Öhman et al., 2001). A fourth line, finally, was re-invigorated when Andreas Olsson joined the group to share the leadership of the group with Öhman in 2007. It concerns the role of social context in modulating the response to emotional stimuli, including the effect of social and non-social threats in our surrounding environment, as well as how such affective processes can impact cognitive processes (e.g. perception, attention and executive functions) and motivate behavior. For example, Olsson and colleagues demonstrated better fear conditioning to out-group than to in-group faces (Olsson et al., 2005; Navarrete et al., 2012). The importance of studying these processes is underscored by their use as experimental models for the development and change of both normal, functional and dysfunctional fear and anxiety outside the lab. Since Olsson took over the leadership of the group, it has further developed the focus on the understanding of how fears and aversion can be acquired and regulated in social contexts.