The role of referential competence and brain asymmetry in personality and motivational processes
Language, that is, the ability to refer to objects, events, and situations with arbitrary spoken or written symbols, is a uniquely human trait. From an information-processing perspective, however, it is a trait that comes with a built-in cost, namely the extra processing step that is required for retrieving a word for an object or event. This process of translating a nonverbal representation into a verbal one has been called 'referential processing' by cognitive psychologist Alan Paivio. Research at the HuMAN Lab explores the role of individual differences in referential processing in people's ability to 'read' their implicit motivational needs and align their explicit goals and values to them. We have developed a measure of referential competence (i.e., the ability to quickly retrieve a word for a nonverbal entity) that is based on a simple color-naming task and study how this measure, in conjunction with individual differences in perceptual brain asymmetry, relates to motive-goal discrepancies, mood pathology, self-regulatory competencies, and personality traits. Our studies show that referential competence is strongly involved in individuals' motive-goal discrepancies (Schultheiss, Patalakh, Rawolle, Liening, & MacInnes, 2011). In ongoing research, we now further evaluate the reliability and validity of the referential competence and brain asymmetry measures and, as a next step, will examine what factors increase or decrease a person's referential competence and brain asymmetry patterns.
In a related line of research, we have examined the relationship between activity inhibition, a PSE-based measure that simply represents the frequency with which people use the word 'not' and is thought to be related to impulse control, and brain asymmetry during stress. Across a series of studies, we have found consistent evidence that individuals high in activity inhibition are quicker to respond to stimuli presented to the right hemisphere, whereas individuals low in activity inhibition are quicker to respond to stimuli presented to the left hemisphere. This difference emerged only when participants were stressed or in a bad mood, which suggests that activity inhibition is a marker of a self-regulatory style that recruits right-hemispheric functions during stressful situations (Schultheiss, Riebel, & Jones, 2009).