Social rejection, a ubiquitous source of threat in human life poses an emotion regulatory challenge to most people. Managing social rejection effectively is likely to depend on top-down control processes that enable regulation of immediate responses and better anticipation of future outcomes (Wager et al., 2009
). Results of the current study demonstrate that individual differences in self-esteem and regulatory abilities can alter the nature of these top-down neurobiological responses to social rejection. Our results show that those low self-esteem individuals who are also low in attentional control capacity show a less advantageous pattern of neural responses to rejection than their low self-esteem high regulatory capacity counterparts. Specifically, we find that low self-esteem individuals who are also low in attentional control show less activity in emotion control related regions in the rACC while appraising their personal feelings in response to rejection-themed images.
On the flip side, our results show that high attentional control alters the neural signature among low self-esteem individuals resulting in higher engagement of the rACC—a neural response indicative of more adaptive responding to threat (Mathews et al., 2004
). Similar to rACC activation, we also found that self-esteem and attentional control modified emotional evaluations of rejection stimuli. Low self-esteem but high attentional control participants perceived rejection-themed images as more arousing and accepting than their low attentional control counterparts. Since these evaluations were assessed in a separate behavioral session, we have convincing evidence that the constellation self-esteem and attentional control reliably shapes recruitment of emotion control-related brain areas and perceptions of rejection. Most importantly, activation in the rACC mediated the relationship between personality and emotional evaluation of rejection, indicating that more favorable perceptions of rejection come about via the engagement of critical regulatory regions.
These results are consistent with our earlier findings and hypotheses on the buffering role of attentional control among low self-esteem individuals (Gyurak and Ayduk, 2007
). In the current study we found that those who showed the strongest physiological reactivity to rejection (i.e. low self-esteem low attentional control individuals) in our prior work (Gyurak and Ayduk, 2007
), demonstrated the lowest levels of rACC activation and the least favorable emotional evaluation of rejection. Lack of activation in the rACC thus appears to result in rating rejection as more arousing and more rejecting. These perceptions, in turn might pave the way for heightened physiological reactions and negative behavioral responses down the road.
The results of this study are also consistent with findings that implicate the rACC in situations when the organism needs to meet the demands of a heightened emotion regulatory challenge (Bush et al., 2000
; Mathews et al., 2004
; Etkin et al., 2006
; Bishop et al., 2007
; Wager et al., 2009
). Furthermore, these results underscore findings by animal and neuroimaging studies that show that the rACC is located at a critical regulatory juncture (for a review see, Etkin et al., 2011
) and is optimally positioned to modulate emotional responses. Collectively, the results argue that the activation of the rACC during social threat serves an important regulatory role and enables a more beneficial profile of responding. Adding further to this argument, there is support from a recent PET study that more rACC activation during the Trier Social Stress Task, a potent elicitor of rejected feelings, can buffer prototypical stress responses, such as elevated cortisol level, that typically ensue after social rejection (Kern et al., 2008
Although previous studies have looked at how self-esteem relates to neural activity (Onoda et al., 2010
; Somerville et al., 2010
), none has examined the effect of self-esteem in the context of attentional control. Nonetheless, these studies suggest that the rACC and medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) in general show heightened activation among low self-esteem individuals—an effect that was not found in our study. There are a number of differences that might account for these findings. First, unlike these previous studies, we did not subject our participants to direct social exclusion or negative feedback; rather, we showed them evocative stimuli that are shown to elicit feelings of rejection and encouraged them to freely process these while monitoring their own feelings. Viewed this way, our task may index spontaneous processing and modulation of self-generated feelings, rather than emotional reactivity and self-referential processing to receiving social rejection. Second, our analyses focused on social rejection while controlling for general negative valence. We think this is a critical distinction, given that self-esteem is typically correlated with high neuroticism, a marker of general negative affect (Judge et al., 2002
). Lastly, these studies did not report correlations between perceptions of social rejection and rACC activation, thus it is not clear how activation in this area might be related to emotional evaluations of rejection.
Our results support recent advances in clinical science that characterize psychological disorders, especially anxiety disorders as an interaction of underlying dispositional vulnerability exacerbated by poor effortful control (Beevers, 2005
; Carver et al., 2008
; MacDonald, 2008
). Even though our sample was recruited to be psychologically healthy, we found that not all low self-esteem individuals are equally reactive in the face of rejection. Those characterized with high attentional control recruit regulatory resources whereas those low in effortful control do not. The Attentional Control Scale is designed to tap into biological differences in the efficiency of effortful control that provide the foundation for personality and other more complex skills related to self and emotion regulation (Derryberry and Rothbart, 1997
). In a separate study (Gyurak, 2010
, Study 4), we explored the correlates of the Attentional Control Scale on the domain of executive functioning and found that the scale was related to performance on complex executive function tasks such as verbal fluency, but not to more simple executive functions such as working-memory, inhibition or task switching. Better verbal fluency performance in turn has been shown to relate to better emotion regulation in several laboratory-based emotion regulation tests (Gyurak et al., 2009
). Thus, scores on the Attentional Control Scale are likely to index one’s ability to direct, alter and maintain attentional focus in the service of goal attainment—a central feature of emotion regulation. We speculate that low attentional control indexes low regulatory abilities and in combination with a vulnerability (low self-esteem) it might be a precursor of later mental health problems.
Several limitations of this research are worth mentioning. fMRI methodology, especially with the blocked task design used here does not allow us to speak to the timing and orchestration of the regulatory sequence implemented by the rACC; this requires future research. Furthermore, our results do not reveal the precise mechanism of regulation that the rACC supports. The rACC might aid several modes of emotion regulation, for example, cardiovascular regulation (Gianaros et al., 2005
) or simple control operations (Bush et al., 2000
) or implicit emotion regulation (Etkin et al., 2011
) or perhaps all simultaneously. Further research is needed to elaborate on these mechanisms.
In conclusion, the present study contributes to our understanding of the vulnerability and protection pattern exhibited by low self-esteem but high attentional control individuals in the face or rejection. Additionally, these findings offer a more nuanced view of these personality dispositions by elucidating the brain correlates that play an important role in lower reactivity in response to rejection.