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Marriage, ERN, EEG, Psychology, ERP, Spousal Interaction, Observation, Reactivity



Rewarding marital relationships are associated with many positive outcomes in one’s physical and mental health, including improved cardiovascular functioning, decreased depression risk, higher self-reported levels of happiness, and overall lower rates of mortality. The purpose of this study was to observe the differences in performance monitoring between males and females (while being observed by their spouses) using error-related brain activity (ERN). ERN is a response-locked, negative deflecting event-related potential (ERP) that occurs 50-100 milliseconds following an error. Heightened (i.e., more negative) ERN amplitude is associated with stressful or anxiety-provoking situations. Conversely, dampened ERN amplitude (i.e., less negative ERN) may be associated with positive emotions, such as increased life satisfaction or belief in God. Knowledge about the effects a spouse has on their partner when observing them in a task will shed light on the effects of stress in everyday life and how a spouse can influence these experiences.


A total of 66 heterosexual married couples (132 individuals) participated in the study. These participants were 18-to 55-years old, right-handed, and native English speakers. Then, using a 128-electrode sensor electroencephalogram (EEG) net, their event-related potentials (ERPs) were measured. Event related potentials are changes in the brain's electrical waveforms due to responses toward stimuli. Behavioral data was recorded during performance on a computerized reaction time task. Each participant completed three conditions in random order: 1) observed by their spouse; 2) observed by an unfamiliar observer; 3) no observer. The observer was told to track the number of errors the participant was making.


When being observed by their spouse, females experienced greater ERN amplitudes (i.e., more negative) than males F(2, 176) = 5.12, p = 0.007, h2 = 0.06. There was increased brain activity to the spouse observer than the confederate observer.


In conclusion, females experienced higher reactivity to their errors than males under observation from their spouse. Research shows a relationship between negative ERN amplitude and anxiety. Our results have implications for spousal interactions and the role anxiety plays, especially for the female spouse, when it comes to feeling supported or threatened during stressful situations (i.e., the computerized task).

An additional interpretation may have to do with gender-related support systems. Current literature suggests that both males and females seek females for social support. Perhaps males are showing dampened reactivity while being observed by their wives because they feel supported by her as a female, rather than as a spouse.


The Annual Mary Lou Fulton Mentored Research Conference showcases some of the best student research from the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. The mentored learning program encourages undergraduate students to participate in hands-on and practical research under the direction of a faculty member. Students create these posters as an aide in presenting the results of their research to the public, faculty, and their peers.

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Family, Home, and Social Sciences



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Marital Satisfaction, Error-observation, and the Brain: Harmful or Beneficial Effects of Spouse Observation?

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