Wieser, M., Flaisch, T., & Pauli, P. (2014). Raised middle-finger: Electrocortical correlates of social conditioning with nonverbal affective gestures. PLoS One, 9:e102937. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102937
Humans form impressions of others by associating persons (faces) with negative or positive social outcomes. This learning process has been referred to as social conditioning. In everyday life, affective nonverbal gestures may constitute important social signals cueing threat or safety, which therefore may support aforementioned learning processes. In conventional aversive conditioning, studies using electroencephalography to investigate visuocortical processing of visual stimuli paired with danger cues such as aversive noise have demonstrated facilitated processing and enhanced sensory gain in visual cortex. The present study aimed at extending this line of research to the field of social conditioning by pairing neutral face stimuli with affective nonverbal gestures. To this end, electro-cortical processing of faces serving as different conditioned stimuli was investigated in a differential social conditioning paradigm. Behavioral ratings and visually evoked steady-state potentials (ssVEP) were recorded in twenty healthy human participants, who underwent a differential conditioning procedure in which three neutral faces were paired with pictures of negative (raised middle finger), neutral (pointing), or positive (thumbs-up) gestures. As expected, faces associated with the aversive hand gesture (raised middle finger) elicited larger ssVEP amplitudes during conditioning. Moreover, theses faces were rated as to be more arousing and unpleasant. These results suggest that cortical engagement in response to faces aversively conditioned with nonverbal gestures is facilitated in order to establish persistent vigilance for social threat-related cues. This form of social conditioning allows to establish a predictive relationship between social stimuli and motivationally relevant outcomes.