Previous work suggests that explicit and implicit evaluations (good–bad) involve somewhat different neural circuits that process different dimensions such as valence, emotional intensity, and complexity. To better understand these differences, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify brain regions that respond differentially to such dimensions depending on whether or not an explicit evaluation is required. Participants made either good–bad judgments (evaluative) or abstract–concrete judgments (not explicitly evaluative) about socially relevant concepts (e.g., “murder,” “happiness,” “abortion,” “welfare”). After scanning, participants rated the concepts for goodness, badness, emotional intensity, and how much they tried to control their evaluation of the concept. Amygdala activation correlated with emotional intensity and right insula activation correlated with valence in both tasks, indicating that these aspects of stimuli were processed by these areas regardless of intention. In contrast, for the explicitly evaluative good–bad task only, activity in the anterior cingulate, frontal pole, and lateral areas of the orbital frontal cortex correlated with ratings of control, which in turn were correlated with a measure of ambivalence. These results highlight that evaluations are the consequence of complex circuits that vary depending on task demands.

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Author notes

Currently at the University of Toronto.