Money Matters: Investigating Neural Responses to Monetary and Social Feedback

Thumyat Noe ’23

Figure 1: Research suggests that individuals with depression and anxiety show different neural responses to monetary and social feedback.

Depression and social anxiety disorders are two of the most common psychopathologies in adults. One way to identify these disorders is by looking at event-related potentials (ERPs) which are measurable brain responses to stimuli. “Reward positivity” is an event-related potential that reflects neural positivity toward rewards and activation of a reinforcement learning system. Previous studies suggest that smaller reward positivity potentials correlate with greater depressive symptoms while larger reward positivity potentials correlate with greater social anxiety symptoms in children. In a recent study, researchers from Stony Brook University and Temple University organized a comprehensive evaluation of neural responses to monetary and social feedback in relation to depression and social anxiety. 

Researchers recruited 204 undergraduates to participate in this study. Researchers first assessed participants’ depressive and anxiety symptoms through self-report measures. Participants then uploaded a digital photo of themselves to a database. Afterward, researchers asked participants to identify which peers on the database they thought “liked’ and “disliked” them. In the “monetary win” task, participants saw two identical doors on a digital screen and guessed which door contained a monetary prize. In the “monetary loss” task, participants guessed which door contained a monetary loss. While participants performed the tasks, researchers recorded electrical activities such as measurements of reward positivity potentials in participants’ brains. 

Correctly identifying stimuli that resulted in a monetary win, monetary loss, social like and social dislike feedback elicited reward positivity potentials that correlated with each other. As hypothesized, smaller reward positivity potentials correlated with greater depression symptoms while larger reward positivity potentials correlated with greater social anxiety symptoms. A large reward positivity potential to social dislike feedback correlated with greater social anxiety symptoms, suggesting that neural responses to correct feedback conditionally correlate with depression and anxiety, but the neural response to social dislike feedback correlates with social anxiety. Overall, the results of this study offer an important insight into understanding depression and anxiety, which could support the development of effective therapies.

Works Cited:

[1] B.D. Nelson, et al., Neural response to monetary and social feedback demonstrates differential associations with depression and social anxiety. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 16, 1048-1056 (2021). doi: 10.1093/scan/nsab055.

[2] Image retrieved from: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1639768

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