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Does unfairness sound wrong? A cross-domain investigation of expectations in music and social decision-making

  • Civai, Claudia
  • Teodorini, Rachel
  • Carrus, Elisa
Published Article
Royal Society Open Science
The Royal Society
Publication Date
Sep 23, 2020
DOI: 10.1098/rsos.190048
PMID: 33047004
PMCID: PMC7540783
PubMed Central


This study was interested in investigating the existence of a shared psychological mechanism for the processing of expectations across domains. The literature on music and language shows that violations of expectations produce similar neural responses and violating the expectation in one domain may influence the processing of stimuli in the other domain. Like music and language, our social world is governed by a system of inherent rules or norms, such as fairness. The study therefore aimed to draw a parallel to the social domain and investigate whether a manipulation of melodic expectation can influence the processing of higher-level expectations of fairness. Specifically, we aimed to investigate whether the presence of an unexpected melody enhances or reduces participants' sensitivity to the violations of fairness and the behavioural reactions associated with these. We embedded a manipulation of melodic expectation within a social decision-making paradigm, whereby musically expected and unexpected stimuli will be simultaneously presented with fair and unfair divisions in a third-party altruistic punishment game. Behavioural and electroencephalographic responses were recorded. Results from the pre-planned analyses show that participants are less likely to punish when melodies are more unexpected and that violations of fairness norms elicit medial frontal negativity (MFN)-life effects. Because no significant interactions between melodic expectancy and fairness of the division were found, results fail to provide evidence of a shared mechanism for the processing of expectations. Exploratory analyses show two additional effects: (i) unfair divisions elicit an early attentional component (P2), probably associated with stimulus saliency, and (ii) mid-value divisions elicit a late MFN-like component, probably reflecting stimulus ambiguity. Future studies could build on these results to further investigate the effect of the cross-domain influence of music on the processing of social stimuli on these early and late components.

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