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Competition in the Brain. The Contribution of EEG and fNIRS Modulation and Personality Effects in Social Ranking

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Competition in the Brain. The Contribution of EEG and fNIRS Modulation and Personality Effects in Social Ranking

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In the present study, the social ranking perception in competition was explored. Brain response (alpha band oscillations, EEG; hemodynamic activity, O2Hb), as well as self-perception of social ranking, cognitive performance, and personality trait (Behavioral Activation System, BAS) were considered during a competitive joint-action. Subjects were required to develop a strategy to obtain a better outcome than a competitor (C) (in term of error rate, and response time, RT). A pre-feedback (without a specific feedback on the performance) and a post-feedback condition (which reinforced the improved performance) were provided. It was found that higher-BAS participants responded in greater measure to perceived higher cognitive performance (post-feedback condition), with increased left prefrontal activity, higher ranking perception, and a better real performance (reduced RTs). These results were explained in term of increased sense of self-efficacy and social position, probably based on higher-BAS sensitivity to reinforcing conditions. In addition, the hemispheric effect in favor of the left side characterized the competitive behavior, showing an imbalance for high-BAS in comparison to low-BAS in the case of a rewarding (post-feedback) context. Therefore, the present results confirmed the significance of BAS in modulating brain responsiveness, self-perceived social position, and real performance during an interpersonal competitive action which is considered highly relevant for social status.
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ORIGINAL RESEARCH
published: 13 October 2016
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01587
Edited by:
Wenfeng Chen,
Institute of Psychology (CAS), China
Reviewed by:
Enea Francesco Pavone,
BrainTrends ltd, Italy
Xunbing Shen,
Jiangxi University of Traditional
Chinese Medicine, China
*Correspondence:
Michela Balconi
michela.balconi@unicatt.it
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Emotion Science,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 02 June 2016
Accepted: 29 September 2016
Published: 13 October 2016
Citation:
Balconi M and Vanutelli ME (2016)
Competition in the Brain.
The Contribution of EEG and fNIRS
Modulation and Personality Effects
in Social Ranking.
Front. Psychol. 7:1587.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01587
Competition in the Brain. The
Contribution of EEG and fNIRS
Modulation and Personality Effects in
Social Ranking
Michela Balconi1,2*and Maria E. Vanutelli1,2
1Research Unit in Affective and Social Neuroscience, Catholic University of Milan, Milan, Italy, 2Department of Psychology,
Catholic University of Milan, Milan, Italy
In the present study, the social ranking perception in competition was explored. Brain
response (alpha band oscillations, EEG; hemodynamic activity, O2Hb), as well as self-
perception of social ranking, cognitive performance, and personality trait (Behavioral
Activation System, BAS) were considered during a competitive joint-action. Subjects
were required to develop a strategy to obtain a better outcome than a competitor (C) (in
term of error rate, and response time, RT). A pre-feedback (without a specific feedback
on the performance) and a post-feedback condition (which reinforced the improved
performance) were provided. It was found that higher-BAS participants responded in
greater measure to perceived higher cognitive performance (post-feedback condition),
with increased left prefrontal activity, higher ranking perception, and a better real
performance (reduced RTs). These results were explained in term of increased sense of
self-efficacy and social position, probably based on higher-BAS sensitivity to reinforcing
conditions. In addition, the hemispheric effect in favor of the left side characterized
the competitive behavior, showing an imbalance for high-BAS in comparison to low-
BAS in the case of a rewarding (post-feedback) context. Therefore, the present results
confirmed the significance of BAS in modulating brain responsiveness, self-perceived
social position, and real performance during an interpersonal competitive action which
is considered highly relevant for social status.
Keywords: social ranking perception, alpha oscillation, fNIRS, BAS, left lateralization
INTRODUCTION
The effect of a competitive task in the brain was recently explored by different perspectives (Cui
et al., 2015;Liu et al., 2015). There is a broad agreement that competition during an interpersonal
performance essentially implies a process of social comparison in addition to the explicit evaluation
of subjective performance. That is, when competition induces a “social outcome” and a potential
improving in social hierarchy, it may produce multiple effects directly related to the “social”
significance of the competition and to self-perception within an interpersonal context. That is the
comparison between my own and others’ outcomes on a specific interpersonal task may or may not
improve my rank perception and social status representation in term of efficacy, taking into account
the existing interpersonal condition. Indeed, in human interpersonal dynamics, social hierarchies
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Balconi and Vanutelli Competition in the Brain
can be established along various dimensions: we can be socially
ranked according to abilities or skills, as well as to economic,
physical, and professional standing.
Conversely, previous research also suggested an important
role for social interactions and self-perception in achieving
accurate self-knowledge and self-improvement, particularly in
response to performance-related social comparisons. It was
shown, in fact, that social status perception reciprocally
affects performance on tasks that involve comparing our own
performance with that of others (Munafò et al., 2005): in other
words, the specific analysis of the social status in the context
of performance-based feedback may act on the real subjective
performance by improving or decreasing the subject’s cognitive
behavior (Munafò et al., 2005). Some previous studies explored
the effect of competition on self-perception, on the efficacy in
social interaction, and on the social-ranking within the social
hierarchy. It was found that competition may increase the
effective subjective performance and perception of higher social
ranking, but it contemporarily induces a decreased sense of in-
group and make the sense of social membership more weak
(Goldman et al., 1977). That is, the subject pays for his/her better
performance in terms of “being less socially part of.”
Therefore, competition is a social-evaluative phenomenon and
such competitive situations can increase the level of cognitive
demand on the performer beyond what is required to simply
execute the task. The increase in such demand may explain,
in part, how competition influences the quality of performance
(with a better or worse effect) and brain responsiveness due to
the attendant alterations of the performer’s mental state and the
underlying neural processes (Rietschel et al., 2011).
It was also shown that an extended neural circuit linking
limbic, prefrontal, and striatal structures may reflect the
emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components of rank-
related social interactions (Levitan et al., 2009). Recent research
examining the structure and function of brain areas associated
to social perception, social efficacy and social ranking offered
preliminary support for these neural mechanisms of human
social system. Dorsal (DLPFC) and ventral (VLPFC) portions
of lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) are generally recruited during
social status inference (Chiao et al., 2009b;Balconi and Pagani,
2014, 2015). The activation of DLPFC and VLPFC during the
observation of social interactions and social status implications
probably reflects the recruitment of brain regions that can exert
top-down control over specific processes, such as emotional
responses to social hierarchy, to orchestrate a socially appropriate
status response (Marsh et al., 2009). Indeed, these brain regions
are typically associated to socio-emotional regulating responses
and behavioral inhibition.
More specifically, the perception of competition influences
the internal evaluation and may manifest as an increase
in cerebral cortical activation in some prefrontal areas, and
affect the performance outcomes. Cui et al. (2015) have
measured pairs of participants’ prefrontal activations during
concurrent cooperation and competition using near-infrared
spectroscopy (NIRS). The participant pairs showed increased
inter-brain synchronization in their right superior frontal cortices
during cooperation (but not during competition), due to the
requirements of modeling the behaviors of others in the
cooperative interactions. Moreover, it has been shown that the
processing load associated to the competitive condition resulted
in heightened cortical activity, as measured by high-alpha
electroencephalographic (EEG) power, across all examined brain
regions. As such, competition imposed an increase in cognitive
load. In addition, the increase in cortico-cortical communication
was robust, involving heightened communication between all
non-motor regions with the strategy planning region, that is
specifically in the prefrontal areas.
However, it remains to be answered whether and how an
increase in cerebral cortical activity is specifically promoted
by competition-induced social evaluation when the cognitive
performance is artificially manipulated. Indeed no previous
research, to date, has manipulated the social environment
via direct competition to assess this possibility. Thus, taking
into account previous research, two relevant aspects were
underestimated and, in our opinion, should be deeply considered
to evaluate the competition effect on social self-perception and
cognitive outcomes: firstly, the presence of an inter-subjective
real interaction where the co-partner is present and actively
implicated in the competitive exchange (Montague, 2002);
secondly, some personality components related to motivational
and emotional level, such as approach/withdrawal attitude to
emotions (Gray, 1990;Balconi et al., 2012).
About the first aspect, in the present research the subject’s
performance on a cognitive task and his/her related social
ranking were artificially manipulated in a dyadic vis-à-vis
competition which stressed the necessity to win and to obtain
a better score than the partner, therefore in interaction with a
competitor (C). Indeed, in contrast to previous studies (Zink
et al., 2008), we included a more realistic ecologic task, where
subjects were required to constantly compare their performance
with that of the other subject. Specifically, an online comparison
with C was performed so that the dynamic modifications of
the subjects’ performance were constantly compared. This aspect
strongly modulated the subject’s perceived status in terms of
performance (“your performance is better than. . .”) and, based
on this comparison, we tested the effect on the subject’s own
status modification related to C status.
About the second aspect, we supposed that the way
individuals judge their social ranking positions partially depends
on some personality factors, such as the degree to which
their own behavior is balanced between “approaching” in
response to rewards (to be more responsive to winning)
and non-punishments, or “withdrawing” from non-reward and
punishments (being more sensitive to losing). These emotional
and motivational components appear to be highly relevant with
respect to self-perception in social contexts and social ranking.
Indeed recent research found that motivations and emotions
are able to manipulate the perception of social hierarchies
by inducing more positive versus negative predispositions
in social relationships (Marsh et al., 2009). Specifically, it
was previously found that subjects with a higher-BAS (the
Behavioral Activation System; Gray, 1994) were more likely
to relate to the dominant character in a dyadic interaction,
which was found to induce a positive effect and a better
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representation of their own social status, while those with a
higher BIS (the Behavioral Inhibition System; Farrow et al.,
2001) were more inclined to relate to a submissive character
and to produce more negative representations of their own
social status (Demaree, 2005). Moreover, in previous research
a significant BAS effect was found in distinguishing social
hierarchy (Demaree et al., 2005;Balconi and Pagani, 2014,
2015). More generally, the BAS system is conceptualized as a
motivational system that is sensitive to signals of reward, non-
punishment, and it is responsible for both approach and active
behaviors. Emotions associated with these behaviors generally
induce the subject to positively approach to interpersonal
situation that have generated the emotional response. In
addition BAS has been associated to feelings of optimism and
dominance: people with highly sensitive BAS may respond
in great measure to approach-related emotional contexts, that
allow the subject to have a favorable and dominant behavior
toward the environment (Davidson et al., 1990;Tomarken
et al., 1992;Gable et al., 2000;Gray and McNaughton,
2000;Balconi and Mazza, 2009, 2010;Balconi et al., 2009a,b,
2012).
About BIS/BAS cortical correlates, they appear to be
lateralized and they are viewed as mutually inhibitory:
respectively, the left PFC was shown to support the approach-
related motivations and emotions, whereas the right PFC was
found to be involved in withdrawal-related motivations and
emotions (Bechara et al., 1999;Bechara and Martin, 2004;
Balconi and Mazza, 2010;Balconi et al., 2012). Therefore, the
role of these two antithetic prefrontal systems, on one hand, and
that of the frontal (PFC) “social” brain circuit was supposed to
be able to elucidate the self-perception of social hierarchy. To
explore the cortical impact in concomitance with the BIS/BAS
dichotomy, the EEG and hemodynamic activity was monitored
during the competitive dyadic task.
Indeed, firstly the modulation of EEG brain oscillations
was considered as a valid measure of brain activation, and
it has often been applied to describe distinct responsiveness
by the two hemispheres to different emotional and social
conditions (Sutton and Davidson, 1997;Balconi and Mazza,
2009;Balconi et al., 2012;Balconi and Vanutelli, 2015). In
fact a reduction of alpha power (increased cortical activity)
in the left frontal brain was found in response to approach
attitude (Balconi and Mazza, 2010;Balconi et al., 2011), whereas
withdrawal conditions induced reduction in alpha power in the
right frontal brain (Davidson, 1992, 2004;Harmon-Jones, 2004;
Balconi et al., 2009a,b). Secondly, although some studies have
provided functional images of activated brain areas in relation
to social ranking (Chiao et al., 2009b;Freeman et al., 2009;
Marsh et al., 2009), they have scarcely addressed the temporal
course of such activation. The classical imaging measures (i.e.,
functional Magnetic Resonance, fMRI) do not seem to completely
describe in depth the nature of the dynamic social processes.
Due to its fast temporal evolution and its representation and
integration among complex and extended neural areas, social
interactions should preferably be examined by means of imaging
methods that offer good resolution in both temporal and spatial
domains. Temporal resolution of NIRS is high enough for
measuring event-related hemodynamic responses (Elwell et al.,
1993). Finally, combined EEG/NIRS measurements allow for the
complementary examination of neural as well as hemodynamic
aspects of brain activation in social dynamics (Biallas et al., 2012;
Balconi et al., 2015).
Therefore, the aim of the present study was to investigate the
neurophysiological bases of social ranking perception underlying
the execution of a competitive joint-action by using both EEG
and fNIRS acquisition. Based on our hypotheses, the observed
performance and the external feedback from one hand, and
the personality components (BIS/BAS) from the other hand,
may affect the self-perception of social position and hierarchy,
and they effectively may modulate our cognitive performance
in social contexts. That is, the perceived effectiveness of our
behavior in term of performance during a competitive task
and specific BAS components positively guide self-perception
of our position within the social ranking and consequently
these mechanisms may impact on the real cognitive outcomes
(improved performance). Concerning the cognitive performance,
consistent better performance should be found for higher-
BAS trait when perceiving an improved ranking, as an effect
of more reinforcing and rewarding outcomes. That is, the
“improving performance effect” should be more significant in
high-BAS as a concomitant result of perceived dominance and
rewarding situations, which high-BAS judge as positive in greater
measure.
The cortical correlates of these cognitive and social
mechanisms are supposed to be related to the prefrontal
areas, with a specific contribution of the left and right
hemisphere. Therefore it is crucial to consider the implication
of the PFC and a possible lateralization effect in response to
social ranking perception, in combination with personality
components (Hall et al., 2005;Chiao et al., 2009a;Balconi
and Pagani, 2014, 2015). We may suppose that, based on the
lateralized approach/withdrawal model, there could be different
contributions of the left and right hemispheres on self-perception
of social ranking. Based on these previous results, it should be
plausible that the hemispheric “competition” between the left
and right sides would characterize social hierarchy behavior,
showing a greater approach attitude and dominance in higher
competitive condition with an imbalance in favor of the
left hemisphere. Specifically, we supposed that higher-BAS
(high-BAS) more than higher BIS participants (high-BIS)
may respond in greater measure to increased outcomes and
increased self-perception of higher social ranking due to the
rewarding effect of higher dominance conditions. Therefore,
decreased alpha activity (i.e., increased brain responsiveness)
for EEG and increased oxygenated hemoglobin (O2Hb)
for fNIRS should be found, respectively, for higher-BAS in
the frontal left brain area when they perceived increased
performance.
Finally, the three levels of social ranking perception,
personality components, and cognitive performance should
be consonant, since we expected a correlated increased self-
perception of social position and a better performance in relation
to higher-BAS, with a concomitant higher activation of left
prefrontal areas.
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MATERIALS AND METHODS
Subjects
Twenty-four undergraduate students, 10 males and 14 females,
took part to the experiment (M=21.06, SD =3.24). The
participants were all right-handed and presented normal or
corrected-to-normal visual acuity. Exclusion criteria were history
of psychopathology (Beck Depression Inventory, BDI-II, Beck
et al., 1996; State-Trait-Anxiety-Inventory, STAI, Spielberger
et al., 1970) for the subjects and immediate family. No
neurological or psychiatric pathologies were observed. Subjects
gave informed written consent to participate in the study and no
payment was provided for subjects’ performance. The research
was approved by the local ethics committee of the Department of
Psychology, Catholic University of Milan.
Procedure
Subjects were seated comfortably in a moderately darkened
room with a monitor screen positioned approximately 60 cm in
front of their eyes. A modified version of Balconi and Pagani
(2014) was used in the present experiment. Participants were
told that some cognitive attentional measures were used to
evaluate the subjective skills and, to reinforce their motivation,
that these measures were usually applied as a screening to test
their future professional career success (teamwork capabilities).
In addition, the competitive nature of the task was stressed:
participants were told that the scoring was based on the
capacity to produce a better performance than the C, in term
of accuracy (number of errors: Error Rate, ER) and response
times (RTs). They were seated side-by-side, but separated
by a black screen in a way that they couldn’t see each
other.
The cognitive task consisted in a sustained selective attention
task. Participants were required to select a target stimulus
between non-targets, based on four different options of
shape/color: the stimuli might interchangeably be a triangle
or a circle, colored red or green. They were required to
distinguish between target/non-target by focusing attention
on each stimulus. The target was displayed on the video
(indicated as the target for selection) and the successive
stimuli were presented one after another. The target stimulus
features changed every 25 trials. The subjects were instructed
to make a two-alternative forced-choice response by pressing
a left/right button. Each stimulus was presented for 500 ms,
with a 300 ms inter-stimulus interval (ISI). After each trial,
composed by three stimuli, subjects received a feedback, after
5000 ms, signaled by two up-arrows (high score); a dash
(mean performance); or two down-arrows (low score). This
feedback remained for 5000 ms. After the feedback, an inter-
trial interval (ITI) occurred for other 5000 ms. The task was
composed by two sessions: the first which did not include a
specific general feedback to performance (four blocks before
the feedback, 100 trials), and a second one which included
a specific positive feedback to performance (four blocks
with the feedback, 100 trials; Figure 1). Halfway, in fact,
participants received a general evaluation of their performance.
Actually, both trial-feedbacks and the general-feedback were
artificially managed. The feedback order (two sessions) was
counterbalanced across subjects. For what concerns the general
feedback, participants were told that they had an outcome
“well above” their competitor’s one and were encouraged to
maintain their performance level, during the second part of
the experiment (“The measures recorded till now reveal that
your performance is very good. Your response profile is well
superior than your competitor’s one. If you want to win, keep
going like this in the following part”). Across the task, after an
initial mean performance, subjects were constantly reinforced
about their good performance by presenting the up-arrows in
70% of cases, while the dash or the down-arrows appeared
only in 30% of cases (mainly at the beginning of the task)
to make the task more credible and plausible. In addition,
after each block of 25 trials, subjects were required to evaluate
their performance and efficacy in term of their ranking on
a 7-point Likert scale (from one =most decreased ranking
due to performance, to seven =most improved ranking due
to performance). Finally a post-session questionnaire explored
the following aspects: degree of their engagement in the task;
trust in the received feedback; relevance of task for their social
status perception; perceived improving of ranking position.
The data showed that participants were strongly engaged in
the task (94% were strongly engaged); trusted in external
feedback (95%); considered the task as relevant for social
status (94%); improved their ranking position during the task
(96%).
BAS Scoring
Behavioral Activation System scores were calculated by using
the Italian version (Leone et al., 2002) of Carver and White
Questionnaire (Carver and White, 1994). It included 24 items
(20 score-items and four fillers, each measured on 4-point
Likert scale), and two total scores for BIS (range =7–28; items
7) and BAS (range =13–52; items 13). BAS also includes
three subscales (Reward: five items; Drive: four items; Fun
Seeking: four items). The questionnaire was submitted to the
participants after completing the experimental phase. The total
scores for each scale were, respectively: BAS: M=47.90
(SD =3.91); Reward: M=23.76 (SD =2.88); Drive: M=12.98
(SD =3.15); Fun Seeking: M=13.09 (SD =2.11). Cronbach’s
alpha was calculated for BAS (0.96) and for each BAS subscale
(Reward =0.87; Drive =0.88, and Fun Seeking =0.89).
Based on these ratings we created two sub-groups: high-BAS
and low-BAS subjects. The first group included subjects with
high-BAS scoring (more than 48, mean +1 SD, N=10);
the second group included subjects with low BAS scoring (less
than 44, mean 1 SD, N=14). Since BIS and BAS were
orthogonally distributed and systematically participants higher
in BAS were lower in BIS, BIS was not used in this phase of
research. Only one subject was removed from the final analysis
since he showed a mixed-profile (both high-BAS and high-BIS
score).
About gender distribution, for both high-BAS and low-BAS
groups there was an equal distribution (respectively, high-BAS:
female =6, male =4; low-BAS female =8, male =6) of genders.
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FIGURE 1 | Experimental procedure which represents setting, task, and measure acquisition.
EEG Analysis
Electroencephalographic recordings were performed with two
16-channel portable EEG-System (V-AMP: Brain Products,
München. Truscan: Deymed Diagnostic, Hronov). An
ElectroCap with Ag/AgCl electrodes was used to record
EEG from active scalp sites referred to the earlobes (10/5 system
of electrode placement; Oostenveld and Praamstra, 2001). Data
were acquired using a sampling rate of 500 Hz, with a frequency
band of 0.01–40 Hz. An off-line common average reference
was successively computed to limit the problems associated
with the signal-to-noise ratio (Nunez and Srinivasan, 2006).
One EOG electrode was placed on the outer canthi to detect
eye movements. The impedance of the recording electrodes
was monitored for each subject prior to data collection and
was always below 5 k. The signal was visually scored, and
portion of the data that contained artifacts were removed to
increase specificity. Blinks were also visually monitored. Ocular
artifacts (eye movements and blinks) were corrected using an
eye-movement correction algorithm that employs a regression
analysis in combination with artefact averaging (Sapolsky, 2004).
After performing EOG correction and visual inspection, only
artifact-free trials were considered (rejected epochs, 3%).
The digital EEG data were band-pass filtered in the frequency
band 8–12 Hz (high- and low-alpha; band-pass filtering
96 dB/octave rolloff, warm-up filter left and right to 100 ms). To
obtain a signal proportion to the power of the EEG frequency
band, the filtered signal samples (epoch 1000 ms) were squared
(Pfurtscheller, 1992). An average absolute power value for each
experimental condition was calculated. An average of the pre-
experimental absolute power (200 ms) was used to determine
the individual power during no stimulation.
The following channels were acquired. For the statistical
analysis left and right frontal (FFC3h, FFC4h) alpha power
activity was considered (Figure 2).
fNIRS
fNIRS measurements were conducted with the NIRScout System
(NIRx Medical Technologies, LLC, Los Angeles, CA, USA) using
a 8-channel array of optodes (four light sources/emitters and four
detectors) covering the prefrontal area. Emitters were placed on
positions FC3–FC4 and F1–F2, while detectors were placed on
FC1–FC2 and F3–F4 (Figure 3). Emitter-detector distance was
30 mm for contiguous optodes and near-infrared light of two
wavelengths (760 and 850 nm) were used. NIRS optodes were
attached to the subject’s head using a NIRS-EEG compatible cup,
with respect to the international 10/5 system.
With NIRStar Acquisition Software, changes in the
concentration of oxygenated (O2Hb) and deoxygenated
hemoglobin (HHb) were recorded from a 120 s starting baseline.
Signals obtained from the eight NIRS channels were measured
with a sampling rate of 6.25 Hz, and analyzed and transformed
according to their wavelength and location, resulting in
values of the changes in the concentration of oxygenated
and deoxygenated hemoglobin for each channel. Hemoglobin
quantity is scaled in mmolmm, implying that all concentration
changes depend on the path length of the NIR light in the brain.
The raw data of O2Hb and HHb from individual channels
were digitally band-pass filtered at 0.01–0.3 Hz. Successively,
the mean concentration of each channel within a subject was
calculated by averaging data across the trials from the trial
onset for 5 s. Based on the mean concentrations in the time
series, we calculated the effect size in every condition for each
channel within a subject. The effect sizes (Cohen’s d) were
calculated as the difference of the means of the baseline and
trial divided by the standard deviation (SD) of the baseline:
d=(m1 m2)/s. Accordingly, m1 and m2 are the mean
concentration values during the baseline and trial, and s means
the SD of the baseline. The mean concentration value of 5 s
immediately before the trial was used as event-related baseline.
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FIGURE 2 | The location of the measurement near-infrared
spectroscopy (NIRS)/electroencephalographic (EEG) channels. NIRS:
The emitters were placed on positions FC3–FC4 and F1–F2 (red dots), while
detectors were placed on FC1–FC2 and F3–F4 (pink dots). EEG: left and right
frontal (green dots: FFC3h and FFC4h) alpha power activity was considered.
Then, the effect sizes obtained from the eight channels were
averaged in order to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. Although
the raw data of NIRS were originally relative values and could not
be averaged directly across subjects or channels, the normalized
data such as the effect size could be averaged regardless of
the unit (Schroeter et al., 2003;Matsuda and Hiraki, 2006;
Shimada and Hiraki, 2006). In fact, the effect size is not
affected by differential pathlength factor (DPF; Schroeter et al.,
2003).
RESULTS
Four sets of analyses were performed with respect to behavioral
(ER; RTs; self-perception ranking) and neurophysiological
(alpha band and O2Hb measures) measures. Repeated measure
ANOVAs were applied to these dependent measures with
the independent within subjects factors condition (pre-post
feedback) and the between factor BAS (high-BAS vs. low-
BAS) applied to ER, RTs and self-perception variables; while
within factors condition and hemisphere side (Lat, left vs.
right), and the between factor BAS were applied to alpha band
and O2Hb variable. The RTs were recorded from the stimulus
onset, and ER was calculated as the total number of incorrect
detections out of the total trial for each category. Higher values
represented increased incorrect responses. About self-perception,
the increased or decreased self-perceived ranking was considered.
Alpha band modulation, O2Hb and HHb were calculated for
each block. For all ANOVA tests, the degrees of freedom were
corrected using Greenhouse–Geisser epsilon where appropriate.
Post hoc comparisons (contrast analyses) were applied to the data.
Bonferroni test was applied for multiple comparisons.
Finally, a series of regression analyses was applied to BAS,
cognitive performance (ER; RTs), self-perception, O2Hb, and
alpha modulation.
A preliminary analysis was conducted with gender as
independent factor, to exclude any gender effect for both
behavioral and neuropsychological measures. No significant
effect was found at the statistical analysis.
ANOVA
ER
ANOVA indicated a significant interaction effect BAS ×Cond
[F(1,31) =6.43, p0.001, η2=0.32]. High-BAS showed
an increased ER in post-feedback compared to pre-feedback
condition [F(1,31) =7.21, p0.001, η2=0.34], whereas
high-BAS did not differ from low-BAS in pre- [F(1,31) =5.78,
p0.001, η2=0.36] or post-feedback [F(1,23) =7.51, p0.001,
η2=0.36] (Figure 3). Also, no significant differences were found
for low-BAS between pre- and post-feedback [F(1,23) =1.09,
p=0.21, η2=0.12].
RTs
ANOVA indicated significant main effects for Cond
[F(1,31) =8.23, p0.001, η2=0.40], with decreased RTs
during post-feedback condition; for BAS [F(1,31) =6.32,
p0.001, η2=0.37], with decreased RTs for high-BAS; and
an interaction effect BAS ×Cond [F(1,60) =8.11, p0.001,
η2=0.41]. High-BAS showed decreased RTs in post-feedback
compared to pre-feedback condition [F(1,31) =8.50, p0.001,
η2=0.40], and reduced RTs compared to low-BAS in post-
feedback [F(1,31) =5.31, p0.001, η2=0.30]. No other
comparison was statistically significant (Figure 4).
Self-Ranking
About the evaluation of their ranking position in term of
performance, ANOVA indicated significant interaction effects for
BAS ×Cond [F(1,60) =7.34, p0.001, η2=0.36]. Indeed
high-BAS showed higher ranking perception than low-BAS in
pre-feedback [F(1,31) =6.55, p0.001, η2=0.34] and post-
feedback [F(1,31) =6.90, p0.001, η2=0.35]. In addition,
high-BAS revealed higher ranking in post- than pre-feedback
[F(1,31) =7.11, p0.001, η2=0.37] (Figure 5).
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FIGURE 3 | Error rates modulation as a function of Behavioral Activation System (BAS) and Condition. High-BAS showed an increased ER in
post-feedback compared to pre-feedback condition while they did not differ from low-BAS in pre- or post-feedback. Also no significant differences were found for
low-BAS between pre- and post-feedback. Asterisk indicates significant differences.
FIGURE 4 | Response times (RTs) modulation as a function of BAS and Condition. High-BAS subjects showed decreased RTs in post-feedback compared to
pre-feedback condition, and reduced RTs compared to low-BAS during post-feedback condition. Asterisk indicates significant differences.
Alpha Band
ANOVA indicated significant interaction effects for Lat ×Cond
[F(1,60) =7.50, p0.001, η2=0.35], with decreased left alpha
activity (increased brain response) for post-feedback compared
to pre-feedback condition; BAS ×Lat [F(1,60) =7.37, p0.001,
η2=0.37], with increased left activity (reduced alpha) for high-
BAS than low-BAS [F(1,30) =6.98, p0.001, η2=0.35];
BAS ×Lat ×Cond [F(1,119) =8.60, p0.001, η2=0.40],
with increased left response for high-BAS in post-feedback than
pre-feedback condition [F(1,30) =5.90, p0.001, η2=0.31];
and with increased left response for high-BAS than low-BAS in
post-feedback condition [F(1,30) =7.13, p0.001, η2=0.37]
(Figure 6).
fNIRS
The statistical analyses were applied to D dependent measure for
O2Hb and HHb-concentration. The analysis on HHb did not
reveal significant effects, and for this reason we report only results
for O2Hb-values. D dependent measure was subjected to three
factors (BAS ×Cond ×Lat) repeated measure ANOVA. The data
were averaged over left (Ch1: FC3-F3; Ch2: FC3-FC1; Ch5: F1-
F3; Ch6: F1-FC1) and right (Ch3: FC4-F4; Ch4: FC4-FC2; Ch7:
F2-F4; Ch8: F2-FC2) channels.
As shown by ANOVA, Lat ×Cond was significant
[F(1,31) =7.12, p0.001, η2=0.35] with increased left
activity for post-feedback compared to pre-feedback condition;
BAS ×Lat [F(1,31) =8.40, p0.001, η2=0.40], with
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FIGURE 5 | Ranking self-perception modulation as a function of BAS and condition. High-BAS showed higher ranking perception than low-BAS in
pre-feedback and post-feedback, as well as higher ranking in post- than pre-feedback. Asterisk indicates significant differences.
FIGURE 6 | Alpha band variation as a function of BAS and Condition. High-BAS showed increased left response in post-feedback than pre-feedback
condition and compared to low-BAS in post-feedback condition. Asterisk indicates significant differences.
increased left activity for high-BAS than low-BAS [F(1,23) =9.70,
p0.001, η2=0.45]; BAS ×Lat ×Cond [F(1,119) =9.03,
p0.001, η2=0.44], with increased left response for high-BAS
in post-feedback than pre-feedback condition [F(1,31) =8.01,
p0.001, η2=0.42]; and with increased left response for high-
BAS than low-BAS in post-feedback condition [F(1,31) =7.77,
p0.001, η2=0.38] (Figure 7).
Regression Analyses
Distinct stepwise regression analyses were performed. Predictor
variables were BAS scores and the predicted variable were,
respectively, self-ranking, performance (ER, RTs), alpha and
O2Hb. As shown, BAS score predicted RTs (R2=0.26, p=0.001;
Figures 8A–D), since increased BAS was related to RTs reduction.
In contrast, no significant result was found for ER (R2=0.09,
p=0.15). In addition, BAS predicted self-ranking score
(R2=0.23, p=0.001), with a positive relation between the two
measures. Also, left alpha (R2=0.29, p=0.001) and left O2Hb
(R2=0.22, p=0.001) values were predicted by BAS, as shown in
Figure 8. Indeed BAS increased values explained alpha reduction
(brain activation) within the left PFC; similarly BAS increased
values explained O2Hb increasing within the left PFC.
DISCUSSION
The present research intended to explore the effect of
personality components and brain correlates in social ranking
perception during a cognitive task which included a competitive
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Balconi and Vanutelli Competition in the Brain
FIGURE 7 | O2Hb modulation ad a function of BAS and Condition. High-BAS showed increased left response for in post-feedback than pre-feedback
condition and compared to low-BAS in post-feedback condition. Asterisk indicates significant differences.
joint-action and where a performance-based feedback was
provided. Specifically, brain oscillations (alpha band) and
hemodynamic brain activity (O2Hb) were considered in
high- and low-BAS profile subjects, to elucidate how this
motivational trait component may affect subjects in formulating
self-representation (ranking position) and self-improvement
(cognitive performance) in an interpersonal context. Based
on our research, some main results were observed. A first
result was related to the systematic PFC response (reduced
alpha and increased O2Hb) to social ranking perception during
competition. This PFC activation was mainly found in response
to reinforcing condition (positive post-feedback) induced in the
subjects for their competitive joint-action. In relation to this
enhanced PFC responsiveness, a specific lateralization effect was
found, with increased left activity in comparison to the right one.
A second main result was related to the improved performance
in terms of RTs, with reduced RTs after a positive reinforce.
Also, self-perception of ranking position showed to be increased
in relation to post-reinforce condition. A third main result was
obtained for BAS variable, with a consistent impact of higher-
BAS scorings on brain activity (more left lateralized response to
reinforce), cognitive performance (general improved cognitive
outcomes), and self-perception (with higher ranking for high-
BAS).
About the first effect, a consistent PFC contribution was
detected in response to post-feedback condition which reinforced
the good subjective performance compared to C’s performance.
Specifically, as shown by EEG and fNIRS data, the PFC was
mainly implicated when subject were informed about their better
outcomes. This result is in line with previous research which
suggested a main role of the VMPFC in responding to status
(Karafin et al., 2004). Indeed, recent studies investigating the
effect of interpersonal situations and reciprocal strategies when
playing with cooperative, neutral, and non-cooperative human
partners, found differential activation in the DLPFC (Suzuki
et al., 2011) and activation in the superior temporal sulcus
during successful adaptation to the strategies of computer agents
(Haruno and Kawato, 2009). In addition, in clinical domain
it was found that patients with VMPFC lesions made less use
of information for their dominance judgments (Karafin et al.,
2004). Moreover, De Vico Fallani et al. (2010) by using EEG
hyperscanning technique have reported activation in this region
during reciprocal interaction in an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma
game. Given the evolutionary prevalence and importance of
social ranking and social perception in interactive contexts,
where hierarchy across species and across human social groups
is crucial, it is plausible that the “social” brain has specialized
mechanisms for perceiving social status and joint-actions.
In parallel to variations in brain activity, a general better
performance with decreased RTs was found especially when
subjects perceived themselves as a better performer than the
other competitor. This main result was in line with previous
data, which pointed out the role of a competitive contexts to
induce improved cognitive outcomes (with general decreased
RTs) compared to cooperative ones, mainly when we develop a
general sense of dominance and superiority than others. More
interestingly, the post-feedback condition revealed concomitant
and simultaneous increased PFC responsiveness, better cognitive
outcomes, and a significant increased self-perception ranking.
Therefore, the external evidence (although artificially induced) of
a good cognitive performance produced also a consistent impact
on social perception, with higher self-attribution in ranking
position. In parallel it was able to induce a real higher cognitive
performance compared to no-feedback condition.
We may suppose that this consistent effect was related to
the impact of the perceived performance on the cognitive real
performance, when this rating was compared to that of the
C. Secondly, this intrinsic relation between brain, cognitive
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FIGURE 8 | Stepwise regression analyses, between (A) BAS and RTs, (B) BAS and self-ranking, (C) BAS and alpha band, (D) BAS and left O2Hb.
behavior, and social representation might highlight the possibility
of considering the reciprocal influence of the PFC and self-
perception, and of the PFC and the cognitive task, as they may
be represented as two sides of the same coin. That is, a sort
of “circular effect” may be adduced: from one hand, the social
significance of the performance for the social hierarchy appears to
be highly relevant in modulating the subjects’ performance across
the task (with a consistent and parallel increasing of ranking
perception and subjective performance), that is modulated by
the prefrontal areas which could support the social perception
process. From the other hand, the suggested increasing in
cognitive outcomes may affect the self-perception of ranking
position, with evident gains for the subjective representation of
social status. Also, in this second case the PFC may support the
reciprocal relationship between cognitive performance and social
representation, reinforcing the “social value” of the prefrontal
areas (Freeman et al., 2009;Marsh et al., 2009;Koslow et al., 2013;
Liu et al., 2015).
At this regard the theory of social comparison processes
(Festinger, 1954) suggested an important role for hierarchical
rank in achieving accurate self-knowledge and self-improvement
for subjects. Therefore these two components (social ranking
perception; cognitive performance) may be considered as crucial
components which can affect the subjective behavior, and the
PFC activation could be suggested as the underlying correlate
of this efficient mechanism. However, it should be noted that,
in comparison to some previous research (Dötsch and Schubö,
2015), in the present study modifications in performance and
self-representation were not generated when a generic positive
reinforce was provided, but they were explicitly related to a vis-à-
vis interactions: subjects “saw” by themselves (as indicated by the
visual feedback) to be more capable than the other C. We may
suggest that in the present condition subjects represented their
social performance as the key point of their behavior.
In concomitance, a clear hemispheric lateralization effect was
observed. As elucidated by the present data, a left lateralized
cortical network within the PFC was found in concomitance
to positive feedback. More generally, in this study, the left
hemispheric effect was demonstrated to be prominent to
explain our results, taking into account both O2Hb and EEG
modulations. The fact that this cortical “unbalance” in favor of
the left hemisphere in response to positive reinforcing conditions
was also accompanied by a better performance and an increased
social efficacy during post-feedback condition in terms of ranking
attribution, may suggest an underlying link between the left
cortical activity, the external social ranking representation, and
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the effective behavior. The specific cortical localization may
suggest the consistent over-activation of the left cortical system
and a concomitant predominance of this brain area in managing
subjects’ cognitive behavior when they perceived to be higher
in ranking. To support this interpretation, previous research
demonstrated that high social power perception is indeed
associated with greater left frontal brain activity compared to low
social power (Boksem et al., 2012).
However, to deeply comprehend the present data we need
to refer to a crucial and ampler construct, that is the role of a
personality component defined as “approach attitude.”
In fact, it has been previously suggested that the frontal
cortical asymmetry in favor of the left hemisphere is associated
to approach motivations and with general dominance and,
therefore, to BAS, together with the ability to regulate positive
emotions (Davidson, 1993;Jackson et al., 2003;Urry et al., 2004;
Balconi and Mazza, 2010;Harmon-Jones et al., 2010). Specifically
it was shown that, based on resting intracortical activity during
social threat, participants with higher resting activity in the
left vs. right DLPFC cortex exhibited more adaptive, dominant,
and approach-oriented responses (Koslow et al., 2013). These
results suggest that social status may not be a “universally
valid” and immutable phenomenon; rather, the perception of
our own ranking, particularly during conditions of competition
with others, may be directly and strongly related to personality
approach-related components. This is in line with previous
studies (Demaree, 2005), which reported that those individuals
with a higher-BAS were more likely to relate to the dominant and
“proactive” character in situations which were shown to induce
a positive effect, whilst those with a higher BIS sensitivity were
more inclined to relate to a submissive and passive character,
inducing a negative effect.
More generally, as shown by the regression analysis, in
the present research it was observed that personality approach
attitude (high-BAS) was able to modulate brain activity (for both
O2Hb and alpha band), social ranking perception, and cognitive
performance. Indeed the perception of ranking was improved in
post-feedback for high-BAS, with self-representation as higher in
social status compared to the C. Moreover, we may describe high-
BAS performance as better than low-BAS one, mainly in term of
RTs, although they generally have “paid” for their RT reduction
with higher ER in post-feedback. In the case of competition high-
BAS had significant higher PFC responsiveness, but limited to a
specific module localized within the left hemisphere, as shown
by both EEG (alpha decreasing) and O2Hb (increased values).
Therefore the lateralization effect was also confirmed in the case
of high-BAS with higher left PFC after post-feedback reinforce.
These results are in line with some previous studies which
demonstrated that high cortical left unbalance is related to
approach-related conditions, with higher prevalence of high-
frequency oscillations in the left than the right PFC (Balconi
and Mazza, 2010). It is possible to explain this lateralization
effect by pointing out that approach attitude, generally associated
to increased left PFC responsiveness, is able to affect per
se both the self-perception of efficacy and competition and,
consequently, the subjects’ real performance. Indeed we may
state that a more consistent approach attitude and positive
motivation may support a concomitant left side hyperactivation
which supports the self-representation of an increased social
ranking in cooperative contexts, with an improved real cognitive
performance. Nevertheless, the role of BAS was not able in
absolute to explain the present results, since we had a significant
generalized higher left hemispheric activity also independently
from BAS contribution. In other terms, the “basic” left lateralized
BAS effect due to approach attitude might not exhaustively
explain the increased effect found in post-feedback condition,
with higher left DLPFC activity as a consequence of positive
reinforcing. We may suggest that the left PFC contribution
in competition may be also intended as a specific cortical
module associated to positive experiences, positive feelings, and
emotional valence.
In general the relevance of BAS construct may also be related
to these three levels of explanation, also integrated each other: the
sense of self-efficacy; the sensitivity to the reinforcing conditions
and rewarding aspects; the dominance trait. From the first
perspective, this raises the possibility that our personality and
our subjective comprehension of social hierarchies may interact
to impact our social success and sense of well-being. At this
regard, it is possible that high-BAS implicitly assessed their own
(self-referential) social hierarchical status more than what low-
BAS did in relation to the task they performed, with particular
respect to increased social efficacy perception. It is also possible
that the improved self-perception of ranking (induced by the
external feedback) may have introduced a reinforcing cue able to
significantly modify the behavioral performance (Chiao, 2010).
Secondly, higher-BAS subjects may be more attentive to
conditions that produce a significant positive reinforce, and that
reinforce the behaviors which are active in nature, ingenerating
positive emotions and positive self-perception of approaching
attitude (Balconi et al., 2009b), as shown by previous research
which used a similar condition (Balconi and Pagani, 2014, 2015).
As observed in the present research, this effect could be valid and
consistent also when a specific social task is provided. Thus, in
line with our previous hypotheses, we observed in higher-BAS
subjects a prevalence in responding to a rewarding condition that
includes a joint-action also when it is competitive in nature. It
should also pointed out that, as shown by previous research, the
rewarding factor may impact on behavior independently from
the nature and the quality of the relationship (cooperation or
competition): that is any rewarding context may be potentially
usable to reinforce their sense of efficacy, improved performance,
and subjective responsiveness. In the meantime, a rewarding
condition may increase the sense of dominance and self-
represented higher status whether the individual cooperate or
compete.
Thirdly, more generally we have to consider the extent to
which higher-BAS individuals are more proactive and dominant
in achieving their outcomes when an interpersonal goal has to
be obtained (Magee and Galinsky, 2008;Pothos and Busemeyer,
2009). By virtue of having relatively a greater proactive attitude
they must rely more on their resources to meet their needs
(Kraus et al., 2009). In addition, an integrative explanation of
the main role exercised by BAS may be proposed taking into
consideration the underlying concept of core self-evaluation
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Balconi and Vanutelli Competition in the Brain
(CSE, Judge et al., 1997). It refers to fundamental assessments that
people make about their worthiness, competence, and capabilities
(Judge et al., 2004). In this respect, CSE has been conceptualized
as an indicator of high approach temperament (Judge et al., 1998),
orienting individuals toward seeking positive outcomes, which
subsequently influence performance and well-being. In addition
CSE can be described in terms of the fundamental evaluations
that people hold about themselves and their ability to control
and manage the external world by forming the basis of their
self-appraisals and self-efficacy.
To summarize, what about the causal relations between
these multiple constructs? Indeed whereas we know that BAS
and external feedback are effective in modulating the cognitive
performance and the brain responsiveness, regression analyses
told us that BAS construct was able to affect simultaneously
the neurophysiological level (EEG and O2Hb), the ranking
perception and the cognitive performance. Therefore we may
suppose that personality components (dominance, sensitivity to
rewarding situations and to positive feedback) can modulate
the self-perception, with significant impact on the cognitive
performance. At the same time, it is able to affect the cortical
activity. It is probably due to the original responsiveness to
the approach condition that an increased PFC responsiveness
was entailed with a specific left lateralization effect. In other
term, the increased perception of self-efficacy, induced by the
positive external feedback, was enhanced in the case of high-
BAS and it may support both the higher PFC implication
and the concomitant effective improved cognitive outcomes.
Therefore we may suggest a sort of “ripple reinforcing
effect,” where the personality trait manage the virtuous social
(ranking perception), cognitive (effective performance), and
brain (prefrontal activation) responses. In addition, we found that
the left side system – more related to BAS polarity – accounts
for the increased performance and improved self-perception:
BAS subjects showed a more intense response within the left
hemisphere in the case of high reinforced competitive outcomes.
Future research should more exhaustively consider a direct
comparison between cooperative and competitive tasks, to
elucidate the main impact of personality components (BAS) in
these two different social contexts. In addition, the distinct role
of EEG and hemodynamic measures should be better tested in
order to furnish a clear overview about the specificity of each
of them in explaining the joint-actions. Finally, future research
should provide a complete analysis of the joint-strategies used by
competitors by applying specific hyperscanning method in order
to consider the joint brain activities of the two actors.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
MB: Planned the experiment; supervised data acquisition and
data analysis; discussed the results; wrote the paper. MV:
Acquired and analyzed the data; discussed the results; wrote the
paper.
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Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Copyright © 2016 Balconi and Vanutelli. This is an open-access article distributed
under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The
use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the
original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in
this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use,
distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these
terms.
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 14 October 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 1587
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Gray (1981, 1982) holds that 2 general motivational systems underlie behavior and affect: a behavioral inhibition system (BIS) and a behavioral activation system (BAS). Self-report scales to assess dispositional BIS and BAS sensitivities were created. Scale development (Study 1) and convergent and discriminant validity in the form of correlations with alternative measures are reported (Study 2). In Study 3, a situation in which Ss anticipated a punishment was created. Controlling for initial nervousness, Ss high in BIS sensitivity (assessed earlier) were more nervous than those low. In Study 4, a situation in which Ss anticipated a reward was created. Controlling for initial happiness, Ss high in BAS sensitivity (Reward Responsiveness and Drive scales) were happier than those low. In each case the new scales predicted better than an alternative measure. Discussion is focused on conceptual implications.
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The neural activities triggered by viewing other's in pain can be modulated by various factors based on previous studies. How the instructions of cooperation and competition influence these activities has not been explored yet. In the current study, participants were instructed to play a game cooperatively or competitively with a confederate. During the game, pictures showing an anonymous' hand or foot in painful or non-painful situations were randomly presented in an odd-ball style. The Event-related Potentials (ERPs) when the participants passively observed these pictures under different instructions were compared. We found a significant interaction of Instruction × Picture on P3 component where only under the competitive instruction the painful pictures elicited significantly larger amplitudes than the non-painful pictures but not under the cooperative instruction. This result indicates that the participants were more responsive to other's pain in a competitive context than in a cooperative context.
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The present study investigated to what extent group membership affects an actor's representation of their partner's task in cooperative joint action. Participants performed a joint pick-and-place task in a naturalistic, breakfast-table-like paradigm which allowed the demonstration of varying degrees of cooperation. Participants transported a wooden cup from one end of a table to the other, with one actor moving it to an intermediate position from where their partner transported it to a goal position. Hand and finger movements were recorded via 3D motion tracking to assess actors' cooperative behavior. Before the joint action task was performed, participants were categorized as belonging to the same or to different groups, supposedly based on an assessment of their cognitive processing styles. Results showed that the orientation of the actors' fingers when picking up the cup was affected by its required angle at the goal position. When placing the cup at the intermediate position, most actors adapted the rotation of the cup's handle to the joint action goal, thereby facilitating the partner's subsequent movement. Male actors demonstrated such cooperative behavior only when performing the task together with an ingroup partner, while female actors demonstrated cooperative behavior irrespective of social categorization. These results suggest that actors tend to represent a partner's end-state comfort and integrate it into their own movement planning in cooperative joint action. However, social factors like group membership may modulate this tendency.