Individual differences in anxiety predict neural measures of visual working memory for untrustworthy faces

Federica Meconi, Roy Luria, Paola Sessa*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When facing strangers, one of the first evaluations people perform is to implicitly assess their trustworthiness. However, the underlying processes supporting trustworthiness appraisal are poorly understood. We hypothesized that visual working memory (VWM) maintains online face representations that are sensitive to physical cues of trustworthiness, and that differences among individuals in representing untrustworthy faces are associated with individual differences in anxiety. Participants performed a change detection task that required encoding and maintaining for a short interval the identity of one face parametrically manipulated to be either trustworthy or untrustworthy. The sustained posterior contralateral negativity (SPCN), an event-related component (ERP) time-locked to the onset of the face, was used to index the resolution of face representations in VWM. Results revealed greater SPCN amplitudes for trustworthy faces when compared with untrustworthy faces, indicating that VWM is sensitive to physical cues of trustworthiness, even in the absence of explicit trustworthiness appraisal. In addition, differences in SPCN amplitude between trustworthy and untrustworthy faces correlated with participants' anxiety, indicating that healthy college students with sub-clinical high anxiety levels represented untrustworthy faces in greater detail compared with students with sub-clinical low anxiety levels. This pattern of findings is discussed in terms of the high flexibility of aversive/avoidance and appetitive/approach motivational systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1872-1879
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2014


  • Anxiety
  • Event-related potentials
  • Faces
  • Trustworthiness
  • Visual working memory


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