Vagal flexibility: A physiological predictor of social sensitivity

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2015 Jul;109(1):106-20. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000016. Epub 2014 Dec 29.


This research explores vagal flexibility--dynamic modulation of cardiac vagal control--as an individual-level physiological index of social sensitivity. In 4 studies, we test the hypothesis that individuals with greater cardiac vagal flexibility, operationalized as higher cardiac vagal tone at rest and greater cardiac vagal withdrawal (indexed by a decrease in respiratory sinus arrhythmia) during cognitive or attentional demand, perceive social-emotional information more accurately and show greater sensitivity to their social context. Study 1 sets the foundation for this investigation by establishing that vagal flexibility can be elicited consistently in the laboratory and reliably over time. Study 2 demonstrates that vagal flexibility has different associations with psychological characteristics than does vagal tone, and that these characteristics are primarily social in nature. Study 3 links individual differences in vagal flexibility with accurate detection of social and emotional cues depicted in still facial images. Study 4 demonstrates that individuals with greater vagal flexibility respond to dynamic social feedback in a more context-sensitive manner than do individuals with less vagal flexibility. Specifically, compared with their less flexible counterparts, individuals with greater vagal flexibility, when assigned to receive negative social feedback, report more shame, show more pronounced blood pressure responses, and display less sociable behavior, but when receiving positive social feedback display more sociable behavior. Taken together, these findings suggest that vagal flexibility is a useful individual difference physiological predictor of social sensitivity, which may have implications for clinical, developmental, and health psychologists.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Feedback, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia / physiology*
  • Shame
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Perception*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*
  • Young Adult