On the neural control of social emotional behavior

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2009 Mar;4(1):50-8. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsn036. Epub 2008 Nov 30.


It is known that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is crucially involved in emotion regulation. However, the specific role of the OFC in controlling the behavior evoked by these emotions, such as approach-avoidance (AA) responses, remains largely unexplored. We measured behavioral and neural responses (using fMRI) during the performance of a social task, a reaction time (RT) task where subjects approached or avoided visually presented emotional faces by pulling or pushing a joystick, respectively. RTs were longer for affect-incongruent responses (approach angry faces and avoid happy faces) as compared to affect-congruent responses (approach-happy; avoid-angry). Moreover, affect-incongruent responses recruited increased activity in the left lateral OFC. These behavioral and neural effects emerged only when the subjects responded explicitly to the emotional value of the faces (AA-task) and largely disappeared when subjects responded to an affectively irrelevant feature of the faces during a control (gender evaluation: GE) task. Most crucially, the size of the OFC-effect correlated positively with the size of the behavioral costs of approaching angry faces. These findings qualify the role of the lateral OFC in the voluntary control of social-motivational behavior, emphasizing the relevance of this region for selecting rule-driven stimulus-response associations, while overriding automatic (affect-congruent) stimulus-response mappings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anger
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Happiness
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress, Psychological / blood
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone