In the age of virtual communication, the source of a message is often inferred rather than perceived, raising the question of how sender attributions affect content processing. We investigated this issue in an evaluative feedback scenario. Participants were told that an expert psychotherapist, a layperson, or a randomly acting computer was going to give them on-line positive, neutral, or negative personality feedback while high-density EEG was recorded.
Sender attribution affected processing rapidly, even though the feedback was on average identical. Event-related potentials (ERPs) revealed a linear increase with attributed expertise beginning 150 ms after disclosure and most pronounced for N1, P2, and EPN components. P3 and LPP amplitudes were increased for both human senders and for emotionally significant (positive or negative) feedback. Strikingly, feedback from a putative expert prompted large P3 responses, even for inherently neutral content.
Source analysis localized early enhancements due to attributed sender expertise in frontal and somatosensory regions and later responses in the posterior cingulate and extended visual and parietal areas, supporting involvement of mentalizing, embodied processing, and socially motivated attention. These findings reveal how attributed sender expertise rapidly alters feedback processing in virtual interaction and have implications for virtual therapy and on-line communication.