Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

The Precuneus and the Insula in Self-Attributional Processes

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

The Precuneus and the Insula in Self-Attributional Processes

Article excerpt

Abstract Attributions are constantly assigned in everyday life. Awell-known phenomenon is the self-serving bias: that is, people's tendency to attribute positive events to internal causes (themselves) and negative events to external causes (other persons/circumstances). Here, we investigated the neural correlates of the cognitive processes implicated in self-serving attributions using social situations that differed in their emotional saliences. We administered an attributional bias task during fMRI scanning in a large sample of healthy subjects (n = 71). Eighty sentences describing positive or negative social situations were presented, and subjects decided via buttonpress whether the situation had been caused by themselves or by the other person involved. Comparing positive with negative sentences revealed activations of the bilateral posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). Self-attribution correlated with activation of the posterior portion of the precuneus. However, self-attributed positive versus negative sentences showed activation of the anterior portion of the precuneus, and self-attributed negative versus positive sentences demonstrated activation of the bilateral insular cortex. All significant activations were reported with a statistical threshold of p ≤ .001, uncorrected. In addition, a comparison of our fMRI task with data from the Internal, Personal and Situational Attributions Questionnaire, Revised German Version, demonstrated convergent validity. Our findings suggest that the precuneus and the PCC are involved in the evaluation of social events with particular regional specificities: The PCC is activated during emotional evaluation, the posterior precuneus during attributional evaluation, and the anterior precuneus during self-serving processes. Furthermore, we assume that insula activation is a correlate of awareness of personal agency in negative situations.

Keywords Attribution theory . Self-serving bias . Self-attributional processes . Precuneus . Insula

People evaluate their own and others' behavior by seeking ("attributing") causes for the occurrence of social events. The cognitive and emotional processes involved in these ascriptions are the focus of neuroscientific research on attributional patterns, which is based on the assumptions of attribution theory. Research in this field is diverse, and the findings are inconsistent. Therefore, the main goal of our study was to extend the knowledge about self-attribution processes by giving a detailed overview of the current and classical literature, using a large sample size in a study of the neural correlates of self-attribution processes, and providing a careful analysis and interpretation of our results.

The origins of attribution theory date back to the 1940s and 1950s, when Heider authored his seminal treatises "Social Perception and Phenomenal Causality" (1944) and The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958). Heider divided people's explanations ("attributions") for the occurrence of different events into two types of causes: personal and environmental. Subsequent enhancements, systematizations, and reinterpretations of attribution theory were elaborated by Kelley (1967), Jones and Davis (1966), and later by Weiner (1974, 1986). Today numerous models have been proposed to explain attributional processes, which can be summarized under the generic term attribution theory.

In this sense, Försterling (2001) defined attribution theory as a group of theories on "how common sense operates" (p. 3), focusing on "the processes that make our everyday circumstances understandable, predictable, and controllable," and which findings are "applicable to a wide area of domains such as achievement, love, health, friendship, and pathology" (p. 4). Attribution theory is a cognitive approach in psychology, and thus the research on attribution focuses on thoughts or cognitions concerning "how individuals select, process, store, recall, and evaluate (causally relevant) information and how the information is then used to draw causal inferences" (Försterling, 2001, p. …

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