Why don't you like me? Midfrontal theta power in response to unexpected peer rejection feedback
Social connectedness theory posits that the brain processes social rejection as a threat to survival. Recent electrophysiological evidence suggests that midfrontal theta (4–8 Hz) oscillations in the EEG provide a window on the processing of social rejection. Here we examined midfrontal theta dynamics (power and inter-trial phase synchrony) during the processing of social evaluative feedback. We employed the Social Judgment paradigm in which 56 undergraduate women (mean age=19.67 years) were asked to communicate their expectancies about being liked vs. disliked by unknown peers. Expectancies were followed by feedback indicating social acceptance vs. rejection. Results revealed a significant increase in EEG theta power to unexpected social rejection feedback. This EEG theta response could be source-localized to brain regions typically reported during activation of the saliency network (i.e., dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, insula, inferior frontal gyrus, frontal pole, and the supplementary motor area). Theta phase dynamics mimicked the behavior of the time-domain averaged feedback-related negativity (FRN) by showing stronger phase synchrony for feedback that was unexpected vs. expected. Theta phase, however, differed from the FRN by also displaying stronger phase synchrony in response to rejection vs. acceptance feedback. Together, this study highlights distinct roles for midfrontal theta power and phase synchrony in response to social evaluative feedback. Our findings contribute to the literature by showing that midfrontal theta oscillatory power is sensitive to social rejection but only when peer rejection is unexpected, and this theta response is governed by a widely distributed neural network implicated in saliency detection and conflict monitoring.