Interpreting ambiguous social cues in unpredictable contexts

F. Caroline Davis, Maital Neta, M. Justin Kim, Joseph M. Moran, Paul J. Whalen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Unpredictable environments can be anxiety-provoking and elicit exaggerated emotional responses to aversive stimuli. Even neutral stimuli, when presented in an unpredictable fashion, prime anxiety-like behavior and elicit heightened amygdala activity. The amygdala plays a key role in initiating responses to biologically relevant information, such as facial expressions of emotion. While some expressions clearly signal negative (anger) or positive (happy) events, other expressions (e.g. surprise) are more ambiguous in that they can predict either valence, depending on the context. Here, we sought to determine whether unpredictable presentations of ambiguous facial expressions would bias participants to interpret them more negatively. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging and facial electromyography (EMG) to characterize responses to predictable vs unpredictable presentations of surprised faces. We observed moderate but sustained increases in amygdala reactivity to predictable presentations of surprised faces, and relatively increased amygdala responses to unpredictable faces that then habituated, similar to previously observed responses to clearly negative (e.g. fearful) faces. We also observed decreased corrugator EMG responses to predictable surprised face presentations, similar to happy faces, and increased responses to unpredictable surprised face presentations, similar to angry faces. Taken together, these data suggest that unpredictability biases people to interpret ambiguous social cues negatively.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)775-782
Number of pages8
JournalSocial cognitive and affective neuroscience
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2016


  • Amygdala
  • Emotion
  • Facial expression
  • Unpredictability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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