Abstract

Damage to the ventromedial pFC (vMPFC) can cause maladaptive social behavior, but the cognitive processes underlying these behavioral changes are still uncertain. Here, we tested whether patients with acquired vMPFC lesions show altered approach–avoidance tendencies to emotional facial expressions. Thirteen patients with focal vMPFC lesions and 31 age- and gender-matched healthy controls performed an implicit approach–avoidance task in which they either pushed or pulled a joystick depending on stimulus color. Whereas controls avoided angry faces, vMPFC patients displayed an incongruent response pattern characterized by both increased approach and reduced avoidance of angry facial expressions. The approach bias was stronger in patients with higher self-reported impulsivity and disinhibition and in those with larger lesions. We further used linear ballistic accumulator modeling to investigate latent parameters underlying approach–avoidance decisions. Controls displayed negative drift rates when approaching angry faces, whereas vMPFC lesions abolished this pattern. In addition, vMPFC patients had weaker response drifts than controls during avoidance. Finally, patients showed reduced drift rate variability and shorter nondecision times, indicating impulsive and rigid decision-making. Our findings thus suggest that vMPFC damage alters the pace of evidence accumulation in response to social signals, eliminating a default, protective avoidant bias and facilitating a dysfunctional approach behavior.

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