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Self-Transcendent Values and Neural Responses to Threatening Health Messages

Kang, Yoona PhD; O'Donnell, Matthew Brook PhD; Strecher, Victor J. PhD; Taylor, Shelley E. PhD; Lieberman, Matthew D. PhD; Falk, Emily B. PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000445

Objective Prioritizing self-transcendent values such as family and friends more than nontranscendent values such as wealth and privilege is associated with lower stress response. In this study, we tested whether having self-transcendent values can reduce specific responses in the brain in the context of potentially threatening health communications.

Methods Sedentary adults (N = 67) who would likely feel threatened by health messages that highlight the risk of sedentary behavior were recruited. Participants indicated the degree to which they prioritize self-transcendent values more than nontranscendent values. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, participants' neural responses to health messages were assessed within neural regions implicated in threat responses, including bilateral amygdala and anterior insula (AI).

Results A tendency to prioritize self-transcendent more than nontranscendent values was associated with lower reactivity during exposure to health messages within anatomically defined regions of left amygdala (t(55) = −2.66, p = .010, 95% confidence interval [CI] = −0.08 to −0.01), right amygdala (t(55) = −2.22, p = .031, 95% CI = −0.06 to 0.0), and left AI (t(55) = −2.17, p = .034, 95% CI = −0.04 to 0.0), as well as a mask functionally defined to be associated with “threat” using an automated meta-analysis (t(55) = −2.04, p = .046, 95% CI = −0.05 to 0.0). No significant effect was obtained within the right AI (t(55) = −1.38, p = .17, 95% CI = −0.04 to .01). These effects were partially enhanced by reinforcing important values through self-affirmation, remained significant after accounting for self-reported social connection, and were specific to health message processing (versus generic self-related information).

Conclusions Attenuated neural reactivity to potentially threatening health messages may be a novel way that prioritizing self-transcendent values could lead to positive health behaviors.

Supplemental digital content is available in the text.

From the Annenberg School for Communication (Kang, O'Donnell, Falk), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; School of Public Health (Strecher), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Department of Psychology (Taylor, Lieberman), University of California, Los Angeles.

Supplemental Content

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Yoona Kang, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School for Communication, 3620 Walnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail:; Emily Falk, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School for Communication, 3620 Walnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail:

Received for publication March 8, 2016; revision received November 29, 2016.

Copyright © 2017 by American Psychosomatic Society
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