Principal investigator: Spencer Lynn
Source: US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences
Emotion perception research has revealed marked variability in people’s abilities to infer the emotional states of others. This variability is a function of (i) the uncertainty and risk in the environment inherent to perception (perceivers cannot be certain about what they are experiencing, and errors of perception may be costly) and (ii) factors internal to individual perceivers (physical and psychological states and traits). Using a novel utility-based signal detection framework, we will examine how individual differences in affective reactivity, executive function, and motivation contribute to this variability in perception and decision-making, under conditions of changing environmental uncertainty and risk.
Studies of the effect of affect on perception often show consistent directional effects of a person’s affective state on perception. Unpleasant emotions have been associated with a “locally focused” style of stimulus evaluation, and positive emotions with a “globally focused” style. Typically, however, studies of affect and perception have not been conducted under the conditions of perceptual uncertainty and behavioral risk inherent to perceptual judgments outside the laboratory. We investigated the influence of perceivers’ experienced affect (valence and arousal) on the utility of social threat perception by combining signal detection theory and behavioral economics. We compared 3 perceptual decision environments that systematically differed with respect to factors that underlie uncertainty and risk: the base rate of threat, the costs of incorrect identification threat, and the perceptual similarity of threats and nonthreats. We found that no single affective state yielded the best performance on the threat perception task across the 3 environments. Unpleasant valence promoted calibration of response bias to base rate and costs, high arousal promoted calibration of perceptual sensitivity to perceptual similarity, and low arousal was associated with an optimal adjustment of bias to sensitivity. However, the strength of these associations was conditional upon the difficulty of attaining optimal bias and high sensitivity, such that the effect of the perceiver’s affective state on perception differed with the cause and/or level of uncertainty and risk.
Lynn, SK, X Zhang, & LF Barrett. 2012. Affective state influences perception by affecting decision parameters underlying bias and sensitivity. Emotion 12(4):726-736.
Principal investigators (multi-PIs): Spencer Lynn, Naomi Simon
Source: National Institute of Mental Health
Award: R01 MH093394-01
Summary: During social interactions, we look into the face of another person and in the blink of an eye infer that person’s emotional state and their intentions. These perceptions inform decisions about what to do or say next. Generalized Social Anxiety Disorder (GSAD) is characterized by exaggerated concerns about negative evaluation and rejection in social situations. These symptoms have been quantified with signal detection theory (SDT). The application of SDT has led to novel approaches within anxiety research; a primary hypothesis, supported by several studies, has been that the “over-reactive” nature of the anxious state can be characterized as a bias to respond to or remember situations as more threatening than they in fact are. In spite of SDT’s power, its conventional use has been limited to simply quantifying differences in sensitivity, bias, and accuracy among perceivers. Left unanswered are questions of particular relevance to research and treatment: what causes the observed differences in bias and sensitivity? A critical barrier to answering this question is the current understanding of SDT in clinical research, which lacks a framework to predict or explain behavior, or in which to pose experimental questions about how mood and anxiety disorders influence the underlying mechanisms involved in threat perception. To bridge this barrier, we introduce a mathematical model of perceptual decision making that incorporates key insights from behavioral economics-utility and optimality- into a signal detection framework. Our primary objective is to use this novel framework to explain differences in threat perception among individuals with GSAD, anxious controls with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and non-psychiatrically-ill participants. Our secondary objective is to assess whether our framework could be used to improve interventions to reduce misperceptions of threat in GSAD. Our model is a unique conceptualization of perception (e.g., optimal detection, subjective miscalibration to underlying environmental parameters that influence overt behavior) that could eventually lead to improvements in cognitive-behavioral therapies by tailoring them to a patient’s individual perceptual decision-making impairment. To achieve our aims, we will recruit 100 individuals with GSAD and 100 individuals each from age- and gender-matched GAD and healthy populations. Participants will complete a suite of perceptual tasks to isolate which of several perceptual decision parameters cause misperceptions of social threat in GSAD. Successful characterization of GSAD along such lines will take the field in new directions by framing social threat perception as a decision made by attempting to optimize detection in the presence ambiguous sensory information and conflicting, risky consequences. As well, the novel theoretical developments represented by our model will broaden SDT’s usefulness deepening the insights it affords into the nature of cognitive processes.
Public Health Relevance: Generalized social anxiety disorder (GSAD) is characterized by frequent, debilitating misperceptions of threat and disapproval in non-threatening social circumstances. This research uses a novel theory and method for characterizing various pathways for disordered threat detection in GSAD. The findings will enable clinicians to build more effective behavioral and cognitive therapies by tailoring therapy to target an individual patient’s particular pathways to perceptual impairments.