How do we arrive at our beliefs? “Neurocomputational mechanisms of affected beliefs” out now!

Affected beliefs

Researchers at Lübeck University show links between emotions and the formation of self-efficacy beliefs


Why do some people believe that they are good at something and others not, while performing exactly similar? A recent study from Lübeck University, Germany, finds that emotional experiences are linked to the way people establish novel beliefs about their own abilities, and how they learn from social feedback during belief formation is associated with specific neurocomputational processes.

Beliefs or convictions are never neutral and always depend on prior beliefs, the social context, and personal motivations. This makes it difficult to examine how people ultimately arrive at their beliefs – here the belief of being able to succeed in a task. The new results show that the process of “how people arrive at their beliefs” is linked to people’s experience of emotions during learning.

The study, published in Communications Biology, investigated links between emotional experiences and processing of surprisingly positive or negative feedbacks on the study participants’ ability in estimating properties of objects. Previous research, mainly in educational psychology, focused on how well-established beliefs, e.g., a student’s belief about her math or sports ability, depends on the learning environment or impacts future career choices. The present study starts at a much earlier point in time by examining the way people initially form such convictions about their abilities, when confronted with an unknown task.

“We observed that the more embarrassment participants experienced the more they focused on negative feedback during learning. We also found stronger activity in response to negative information in brain structures typically associated with the value of feedback and affective experiences. Our findings on the influence of affective experiences such as embarrassment and pride during learning provide a deeper understanding of how feedback manifests in beliefs about whether one is good or bad at doing something, which may in turn impact developmental processes and future behavior” said Dr. Laura Müller-Pinzler, researcher at Lübeck University and lead author of this study.

In this neuroimaging study, altogether 39 young adults repeatedly estimated properties such as the weights of animals or the heights of houses and subsequently received faked feedback on their estimation performance.

“We chose this unusual estimation task, because we think that study participants would not have too firm previous assumptions about their ability in this task. This way, we were able to make participants form rather novel self-conceptions and examine the underlying neurocomputational processes along the way” explains Sören Krach, professor at the Social Neuroscience Lab at the Department of Psychiatry at Lübeck University and senior author of the study.

Before each estimation, participants provided their performance expectation for the subsequent property. Importantly, participants observed another person performing the estimation task and were also asked to report how they expect the other person would perform. Between assessments, participants were asked several times to indicate their current emotional experiences. By computing how the participants’ expectations changed given each feedback, the researchers were able to model the learning processes underlying how people formed new self-efficacy beliefs.

As expected, the formation of the self-efficacy belief was affected in double sense: First, beliefs about one’s own abilities manifested in a biased way in the sense that participants preferentially processed negative compared to positive feedbacks to update their beliefs. This bias was not present when participants learned about the other person’s ability. Second, people with a stronger bias for negative information had greater emotional arousal when confronted with negative feedback. This was indicated by the dilation of the pupil and altered activity of brain regions involved in regulating affect. Together the results hint at neurocomputational mechanisms that integrate emotional experiences during learning when people form novel beliefs about their abilities.

“Our findings suggest that the anterior insula, a brain structure that has been regarded as a hub for interoception of emotional experiences, is involved in neural computations while learning from self-related feedback. We think this could be a basis for how emotions are translated into biased, affected beliefs.” explains Laura Müller-Pinzler.

“Self-efficacy beliefs are important when making life choices. Our studies now provide clear evidence that these beliefs are linked to the affective experience during their initial formation when solving novel tasks. While the social feedback in response to our performances in everyday life might be ambiguous, and we will also fail, it is beneficial for developing strong self-efficacy beliefs if positive emotions outweigh the negative experiences during learning.”

Manuscript can be found here (open access):

Behind the paper:

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