Clarifying the emotive functions of asymmetrical frontal cortical activity


  • This research was funded in part by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (1 R03 MH60747-01), the National Science Foundation (BCS-9910702), the Wisconsin/Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Research Fund, and the University of Wisconsin Graduate School. Thanks to Cindy Harmon-Jones for providing comments on earlier drafts of this article and for helping with several other aspects of the research process. Thanks also to the individuals who assisted with the studies reported in this article: Jon Sigelman, Dirk Wilker, Ziggy Bialzik, Andy Mulder, Greg Kant, John Allen, Kate Vaughn, Sheri Mohr, Amanda Bohlig, Leonard Lee, Lyn Abramson, Mike Hogan, Dave Amodio, Jim Shah, Paige Brazy, Dan Ward, Chris Kolstad, Michael Leggadrio, and Matt Poelzer.

Address reprint requests to: Eddie Harmon-Jones, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, 1202 West Johnson Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA. E-mail:


Asymmetrical activity over the frontal cortex has been implicated in the experience and expression of emotions and motivations. Explanations of the research have suggested that relatively greater left frontal activity is associated with positive affect and/or approach motivation, and that relatively greater right frontal activity is associated with negative affect and/or withdrawal motivation. In past research, affective valence and motivational direction were confounded, as only positive (negative) affects that were associated with approach (withdrawal) motivation were examined. Consequently, this research is unable to address whether asymmetrical frontal activity is associated with affective valence, motivational direction, or some combination of valence and motivation. In this article, I review research on the emotion of anger, a negative emotion often associated with approach motivation, that suggests that asymmetrical frontal cortical activity is due to motivational direction and not affective valence. Methodological and theoretical implications for the study of the frontal asymmetry specifically, and for emotion and motivation more generally, are discussed.