Self-esteem modulates amygdala-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex connectivity in response to mortality threats

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2016 Mar;145(3):273-83. doi: 10.1037/xge0000121. Epub 2015 Nov 16.


Reminders of death often elicit defensive responses in individuals, especially among those with low self-esteem. Although empirical evidence indicates that self-esteem serves as a buffer against mortality threats, the precise neural mechanism underlying this effect remains unknown. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test the hypothesis that self-esteem modulates neural responses to death-related stimuli, especially functional connectivity within the limbic-frontal circuitry, thereby affecting subsequent defensive reactions. As predicted, individuals with high self-esteem subjected to a mortality threat exhibited increased amygdala-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) connectivity during the processing of death-related stimuli compared with individuals who have low self-esteem. Further analysis revealed that stronger functional connectivity between the amygdala and the VLPFC predicted a subsequent decline in responding defensively to those who threaten one's beliefs. These results suggest that the amygdala-VLPFC interaction, which is modulated by self-esteem, can reduce the defensiveness caused by death-related stimuli, thereby providing a neural explanation for why individuals with high self-esteem exhibit less defensive reactions to mortality threats.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Self Concept*
  • Young Adult