Peer Victimization and Dysfunctional Reward Processing: ERP and Behavioral Responses to Social and Monetary Rewards
Peer victimization (or bullying) is a known risk factor for depression, especially among youth. However, the mechanisms connecting victimization experience to depression symptoms remains unknown. As depression is known to be associated with neural blunting to monetary rewards, aberrant responsiveness to social rewards may be a key deficit connecting socially stressful experiences with later depression. We therefore sought to determine whether adolescents’ experiences with social stress would be related to their current response to social rewards over less socially relevant monetary rewards. Neural responses to monetary and social rewards were measured using event-related potentials (ERPs) to peer acceptance and rejection feedback (Island Getaway task) and to monetary reward and loss feedback (Doors task) in a sample of 56 late adolescents/emerging young adults followed longitudinally since preschool. In the Island Getaway task, participants voted whether to “keep” or “kick out” each co-player, providing an index of prosocial behavior, and then received feedback about how each player voted for the participant. Analyses tested whether early and recent peer victimization were related to response to rewards (peer acceptance or monetary gains), residualized for response to losses (peer rejection or monetary losses) using the reward positivity (RewP) component. Findings indicated that both experiencing greater early and greater recent peer victimization were significantly associated with participants casting fewer votes to keep other adolescents (“Keep” votes) and that greater early peer victimization was associated with reduced neural response to peer acceptance. Early and recent peer victimization were significantly more associated with neural response to social than monetary rewards. Together, these findings suggest that socially injurious experiences such as peer victimization, especially those occurring early in childhood, relate to two distinct but important findings: that early victimization is associated with later reduced response to peer acceptance, and is associated with later tendency to reject peers. Findings also suggest that there is evidence of specificity to reward processing of different types; thus, future research should expand studies of reward processing beyond monetary rewards to account for the possibility that individual differences may be related to other, more relevant, reward types.