Modulation of error processing by error significance: Electrophysiological and cardiac evidence

Fiehler, K., Ullsperger, M., Grigutsch, M., and von Cramon, D. Y.
Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Leipzig, Germany

An event-related potential (ERP) associated with error processing has often been described and named error-related negativity (ERN). Evidence in the literature for the modulators of the ERN is inconsistent. Examples are strength of response conflict, individual importance or awareness of the errors.

We investigated the ERN and corrective behavior by recording ERPs and heart rate (HR) during the performance of a modified flankers task. Participants were randomly divided into two groups: The correction-instructed (CI) group who was asked to immediately correct all encountered errors and the correction-non-instructed (CN) group who was unaware that corrective responses were recorded.

The intention to correct errors significantly increased the correction rate. Effects of incompatibility were observed on the behavioral as well as on the HR level: Incompatible trials revealed more errors, longer reaction times and greater HR deceleration than compatible trials. Errors elicited faster reaction times and greater HR deceleration compared to correct responses.

The ERN was observed for incorrect responses showing a more negative amplitude for the CN group. When considering the behavioral results we assume that the ERN was modulated by the motivational significance of the errors reflected by less errors, more late responses as well as post-error slowing in the CN group. This assumption was strengthened by a trend of increased errorrelated HR deceleration in the CN group. According to Crone and colleagues (in press) the result suggests a stronger violation of the performance-based expectations in the CN group compared to the CI who had the possibility to correct their errors.