Smiling faces and cash bonuses: Exploring common affective coding across positive and negative emotional and motivational stimuli using fMRI

  • Haeme R. P. Park
  • Mariam Kostandyan
  • C. Nico Boehler
  • Ruth M. Krebs


Although it is clear that emotional and motivational manipulations yield a strong influence on cognition and behaviour, these domains have mostly been investigated in independent research lines. Therefore, it remains poorly understood how far these affective manipulations overlap in terms of their underlying neural activations, especially in light of previous findings that suggest a shared valence mechanism across multiple affective processing domains (e.g., monetary incentives, primary rewards, emotional events). This is particularly interesting considering the commonality between emotional and motivational constructs in terms of their basic affective nature (positive vs. negative), but dissociations in terms of instrumentality, in that only reward-related stimuli are typically associated with performance-contingent outcomes. Here, we aimed to examine potential common neural processes triggered by emotional and motivational stimuli in matched tasks within participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Across tasks, we found shared valence effects in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and left inferior frontal gyrus (part of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), with increased activity for positive and negative stimuli, respectively. Despite this commonality, emotion and reward tasks featured differential behavioural patterns in that negative valence effects (performance costs) were exclusive to emotional stimuli, while positive valence effects (performance benefits) were only observed for reward-related stimuli. Overall, our data suggest a common affective coding mechanism across different task domains and support the idea that monetary incentives entail signed basic valence signals, above and beyond the instruction to perform both gain and loss trials as accurately as possible to maximise the outcome.


Emotion Motivation Reward Saliency Affect fMRI 



This study was supported by a starting grant of the European Research Council (ERC) under the Horizon 2020 framework (Grant No. 636110 awarded to R.M.K.).

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Haeme R. P. Park
    • 1
  • Mariam Kostandyan
    • 1
  • C. Nico Boehler
    • 1
  • Ruth M. Krebs
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Experimental PsychologyGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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