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Neurophysiological changes in error processing are linked with having an unsupportive spouse

By: April Carson

According to new research appearing in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, being subjected to unhelpful behaviors from a partner may affect how the brain processes mistakes. Unsupportive actions were shown to be linked with an increased neural sensitivity after making a mistake in front of one's partner.

The data showed that those who experienced unsupportive behaviors from the partner had neural activity in a key region of the brain involved with error processing, error-related negativity (ERN), increased. This means that those who experienced unhelpful behaviors from their partners may be less able to tune out mistakes in order to focus on new tasks, as their brains are more reactive to these errors.

“Romantic relationships are a significant portion of many people's lives, yet we still do not know a lot about how they influence our daily lives,” explained Erin Palmwood, an assistant professor at the University of Mary Washington and a psychologist with professional experience.

“We were curious in this research about how supportive and unsupportive comments from our romantic partners impact our reactions to mistakes we make, which may help us understand how these relationships contribute to adaptive risk-taking, goal-striving, and anxious avoidance.”

In this study, Palmwood and her team found that people who have supportive romantic partners tend to be less reactive to errors than those with unsupportive partners. They also found that this link is driven by differences in neurophysiological activity – particularly, changes in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in error processing.

The final sample for the research consisted of 20 individuals (who were selected from university psychology courses) as well as their romantic partners. The participants had been in a committed relationship with their partners for about 1.29 years at the time of the study.

After that, the participants and their significant others completed various psychological tests, including the Significant Others Scale and the Social Undermining Scale. The Significant Others Scale counts on perceptions of support from love partners, whereas the Social Undermining Scale assesses perceived unsupportive actions such as criticism and insults.

The participants were brought back to the laboratory approximately two weeks later, where they completed the Eriksen Flanker Task, an assessment of selective attention and executive control. Participants completed the assignment while seated in an empty room during one session. The participants did the task with their partners sitting beside them during another session. (The partner was told to keep quiet.)

The study's participants were asked to complete several tasks while undergoing brain scans using electroencephalography. They were particularly interested in a type of electrical brain activity known as error-related negativity (ERN), which is generated after a behavioral blunder is made. “ERN amplitude reflects the degree to which an individual views an error as dangerous,” the researchers said.

The study found that, on average, the ERN was much larger when participants carried out the task alone compared to when they completed it while sitting next to their partners. The results suggest that having a supportive love partner can help buffer us against feeling threatened in response to making a mistake.

According to Palmwood and her colleagues, critical behavior was linked to altered error processing. When errors were made, those who experienced more hostile behavior from their partner had greater ERN responses when seated next to their partner — but only when they were sitting together.

“When your spouse shows unsupportive behavior towards you, you are more prone to react strongly to your mistakes,” Palmwood added. “This might be the case because an unsupportive partner may be extremely harsh in his or her judgments of your mistakes, or because you may have internalized some self-critical sentiments as a result of hearing so much criticism from your spouse. “The findings are consistent with other studies that show relationships are more beneficial when partners' goals align and they feel supported by one another. This may help to explain the link between negative romantic partnerships and things like anxiety, sadness, and reduced goal achievement.”

However, the experts said that further research is required to determine the generalizability of these findings.

“The fact that this study was conducted on a tiny, uniform sample and used only undergraduate student participants is a significant drawback,” Palmwood pointed out. “This research should be repeated with larger, more diverse samples to verify the generalizability of these results.”

Erin N. Palmwood and Robert F. Simons authored the study, "Unsupportive romantic partner behaviors increase neural reactivity to errors." It was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Overall, the findings of this study suggest that having an unsupportive love partner can lead to neurophysiological changes in error processing and may be linked with negative mental health outcomes. If you are struggling in your relationship or feeling unsupported by your partner, it may be helpful to seek out support from friends, family, or a therapist.

S1:E14 - How to keep a healthy relationship - Relationships on Bio-Hack Your Best Life Part 2


About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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