Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Reactive aggression following provocation is a frequent form of human social behavior. The neural basis of reactive aggression, especially its control, remains poorly understood, however. We conducted an event-related potential (ERP) study using a competitive reaction time task that elicits aggression through provocation. Participants were selected from a larger sample because of extreme scores in trait aggressiveness, yielding high and low trait aggressive groups. As each trial in the task is separated into a decision phase, during which the punishment level for the opponent is set, and an outcome phase, during which the punishment is applied or received, we were able to disentangle provocation-related and evaluation-related modulations of the ERPs during the aggressive interaction. Specifically, we observed an enhanced frontal negativity during the decision phase under high provocation that was positively correlated with the participants' ability to refrain from retaliation. This held true for high trait aggressive participants only, pointing to a higher need for inhibitory and control processes in these people when provoked. During the outcome phase, we detected a mediofrontal negativity in loss compared to win trials, resembling previous ERP findings to negative feedback stimuli, which have been linked to the evaluation of an outcome's valence. This mediofrontal negativity was differentially pronounced in aggressive and nonaggressive participants: Nonaggressive participants showed only a slightly smaller mediofrontal negativity in win than in loss trials, suggesting that for them punishing the opponent had a similar negative valence as being punished.