Social cognitive conflict resolution: contributions of domain-general and domain-specific neural systems.

Abstract

Cognitive control mechanisms allow individuals to behave adaptively in the face of complex and sometimes conflicting information. Although the neural bases of these control mechanisms have been examined in many contexts, almost no attention has been paid to their role in resolving conflicts between competing social cues, which is surprising given that cognitive conflicts are part of many social interactions. Evidence about the neural processing of social information suggests that two systems--the mirror neuron system (MNS) and mental state attribution system (MSAS)--are specialized for processing nonverbal and contextual social cues, respectively. This could support a model of social cognitive conflict resolution in which competition between social cues would recruit domain-general cognitive control mechanisms, which in turn would bias processing toward the MNS or MSAS. Such biasing could also alter social behaviors, such as inferences made about the internal states of others. We tested this model by scanning participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging while they drew inferences about the social targets' emotional states based on congruent or incongruent nonverbal and contextual social cues. Conflicts between social cues recruited the anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal cortex, brain areas associated with domain-general control processes. This activation was accompanied by biasing of neural activity toward areas in the MNS or MSAS, which tracked, respectively, with perceivers' behavioral reliance on nonverbal or contextual cues when drawing inferences about targets' emotions. Together, these data provide evidence about both domain-general and domain-specific mechanisms involved in resolving social cognitive conflicts.

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