Error-related negativity predicts reinforcement learning and conflict biases

Neuron. 2005 Aug 18;47(4):495-501. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2005.06.020.


The error-related negativity (ERN) is an electrophysiological marker thought to reflect changes in dopamine when participants make errors in cognitive tasks. Our computational model further predicts that larger ERNs should be associated with better learning to avoid maladaptive responses. Here we show that participants who avoided negative events had larger ERNs than those who were biased to learn more from positive outcomes. We also tested for effects of response conflict on ERN magnitude. While there was no overall effect of conflict, positive learners had larger ERNs when having to choose among two good options (win/win decisions) compared with two bad options (lose/lose decisions), whereas negative learners exhibited the opposite pattern. These results demonstrate that the ERN predicts the degree to which participants are biased to learn more from their mistakes than their correct choices and clarify the extent to which it indexes decision conflict.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*


  • Dopamine