Controllability: Does it change our perception?

figImagine a wild dog is running towards you and there is no escape. You are helpless and will have to face the consequence of the attacking dog. Now imagine that you are standing in an open doorway. Now you know that you have control of the situation and can prevent the dog from attacking you by closing the door. In this hypothetical example of the wild dog, how does your brain respond the moment it knows you have control over the outcome of the situation? Currently, few studies have compared the brain’s response to cues indicating aversive (or rewarding) events in uncontrollable and controllable circumstances.

The behavioral response to rewarding and aversive events in the human brain depends on the context of the situation. Controllability refers to the degree in which an individual can influence the situations outcome. Every day we experience scenarios in which we are rewarded for specific behaviors. Additionally, if we fail to behave appropriately we are faced with various forms of punishment. Sometimes, these rewards and punishments are perceived as controllable and sometimes they are not.

The goal of my research is to identify the brain’s response to cues preceding controllable and uncontrollable rewarding and aversive events. Electroencephalography (EEG) and event-related potentials (ERPs) will be used to identify the neuronal activity in response to these events. Participants will complete a task in which geometrical symbols are paired with controllable and uncontrollable aversive and rewarding events on the screen of a computer. Referring to the example of the wild dog, some of these symbols represent the presence of the door (choice vs. no-choice), while some of these symbols represent the intention of the dog (aversive vs. reward). Understanding how the brain processes controllability is important to better understand anxiety disorders in humans.

Tyler West

Health and Exercise Science

University of Mississippi

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