Results from a neuroimaging study published in PLoS One provide an outline of the neural response to criticism. The source of criticism was found to significantly regulate prefrontal cortex activity in a cohort of participants randomized to witness criticism as a third-party. Participants had greater prefrontal cortex (PFC) activation when reading vignettes describing criticism from romantic partners and parents than when reading vignettes describing criticism from friends. Greater PFC activation was also associated with higher levels of self-perceived criticism from parents, suggesting that personal exposure to criticism can influence third-party perception of criticism.
While prior studies have assessed the neural mechanisms underlying response to criticism, the majority have focused on criticism from a maternal source. This study sought to assess potential neural differences in observing criticism from 3 sources: romantic partners, friends, and parents.
Participants were recruited from the undergraduate program of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Participants completed a pre-experimental questionnaire asking them to provide Perceived Criticism (PC) ratings for each of the following relationships: (1) romantic partner (if any); (2) friend; and (3) parents. During the experiment, participants were asked to read vignettes describing scenarios involving criticism.
Near-Infrared Spectroscopy readings were made while participants read the vignettes. Three vignettes were supplied, each describing a scenario criticism from a different source. The order of vignettes was randomized for each participant.
After exposure to each vignette, participants were asked to rate the following items on a 10-point scale: (1) the level of justification for the criticism; and (2) the perceived impact of criticism on the vignette’s subject. A one-way, repeated measures analysis of variance was used to assess whether relationship type impacted participants’ perceived level of justification and impact of criticism.
The final sample comprised 49 participants, among whom 51% were women. Mean age 21.65 ± 1.49 years. No significant impact of source of criticism was observed on the perceived level of justification or the perceived impact of criticism.
However, a significant interaction between vignette relationship type and the PC rating of mothers was found in the dorsolateral PFC (dlPFC) (P =.03). As PC ratings for the participant’s mother increased, so too did activation of the left middle front gyrus of the dlPFC when reading vignettes describing criticism from romantic partners and parents. But, activation of the same region decreased when reading vignettes describing criticism from friends. These data suggest that criticism perceived in an individual’s own environment may influence response to criticism from a third-party perspective.
Study limitations include the small cohort size and single study site. Further study in larger samples is necessary to better understand the influence of personal experiences with criticism on neural response to witnessing criticism.
“This provides preliminary evidence that points toward differences in social information processing as a function of one’s own interpersonal environment and past experiences, specifically in the context of observing criticism as it occurs in social interactions of others,” the investigators wrote. “Future studies can look into differentiating neural responses of [personalized] experiences of criticism and third-party observations.”
Neoh MJ, Azhari A, Mulatti C, Bornstein MH, Esposito G. Disapproval from romantic partners, friends and parents: Source of criticism regulates prefrontal cortex activity. PLoS One. 2020;15(10):e0229316. doi; 10.1371/journal.pone.0229316