Recognizing intentions of strangers from facial cues is crucial in everyday social interactions. Recent studies demonstrated enhanced event-related potential (ERP) responses to untrustworthy compared to trustworthy faces. The aim of the present study was to investigate the electrophysiological correlates of automatic processing of trustworthiness cues in a visual oddball paradigm in two consecutive experimental blocks. In one block, frequent trustworthy (p = 0.9) and rare untrustworthy face stimuli (p = 0.1) were briefly presented on a computer screen with each stimulus consisting of four peripherally positioned faces. In the other block stimuli were presented with reversed probabilities enabling the comparison of ERPs evoked by physically identical deviant and standard stimuli. To avoid attentional effects participants engaged in a central detection task. Analyses of deviant minus standard difference waveforms revealed that deviant untrustworthy but not trustworthy faces elicited the visual mismatch negativity (vMMN) component. The present results indicate that adaptation occurred to repeated unattended trustworthy (but not untrustworthy) faces, i.e., an automatic expectation was elicited towards trustworthiness signals, which was violated by deviant untrustworthy faces. As an evolutionary adaptive mechanism, the observed fast detection of trustworthiness-related social facial cues may serve as the basis of conscious recognition of reliable partners.
Keywords: Trustworthiness; event-related potential (ERP); pre-attentive processing; social perception; visual mismatch negativity (vMMN).