Universiteit Leiden

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Empathic or anxious mistakes?

A neurocognitive investigation of the development of social performance monitoring in youth growing up in stressful versus non-stressful environments

Sandy Overgaauw
KNAW Sara van Dam Project Grant

From birth onwards interacting with others lies at the core of human social behavior. Children need to learn, for example, that their actions may have important consequences not only for themselves but also for the people around them. Both performance monitoring (detecting errors and generating adequate behavioral adjustments in response to them) and empathy contribute to the ability to comply with social norms. These processes importantly add to the formation and maintenance of healthy relationships because they facilitate controlling behavior, learning from previous (social) mistakes, and sharing and understanding other people’s emotions. Interestingly, both processes are not only similar regarding their impact on socio-emotional functioning, but the brain regions involved in these processes overlap as well.

Both empathy and social performance monitoring are important skills, protecting individuals against the development of physical and emotional problems. This is of specific interest during childhood and adolescence when empathic abilities as well as performance monitoring are still developing and anxiety disorders are known to often have their onset. Therefore, the aim of this project is to investigate how empathy supports resilience against anxiety problems through studying performance monitoring in a social context during the eventful transition period from childhood to adulthood.

Despite the clinical relevance, the relationship between performance monitoring, empathy, and anxiety during a critical developmental period remains to be explored. We will investigate this not only in typically developing adolescents, but also in youth growing up in a stressful environment. Previous studies have shown that stressful events in early life increase the likelihood of developing anxiety related disorders later in life. Therefore, we will specifically focus on adolescents growing up in southern Israel who are under a continuous threat of missile attacks. By including youth growing up in a stressful environment, we will not only (i) examine the relationship between empathy, anxiety, and the neurocognitive development of social performance monitoring, but we will also (ii) employ a clinical perspective that will advance our understanding of the development of anxiety disorders in a population at risk.


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