Better or worse than expected? Aging, learning, and the ERN

Neuropsychologia. 2008 Jan 31;46(2):521-39. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.09.001. Epub 2007 Sep 7.


This study examined age differences in error processing and reinforcement learning. We were interested in whether the electrophysiological correlates of error processing, the error-related negativity (ERN) and the feedback-related negativity (FRN), reflect learning-related changes in younger and older adults. To do so, we applied a probabilistic learning task in which we manipulated the validity of feedback. The results of our study showed that learning-related changes were much more pronounced (a) in a response-locked positivity for correct trials compared to the ERN and (b) in a feedback-locked positivity for positive feedback compared to the FRN. These findings provide an important extension to recent theoretical accounts [Holroyd, C. B., & Coles, M. G. H. (2002). The neural basis of human error processing: Reinforcement learning, dopamine, and the error-related negativity. Psychological Review, 109, 679-709; Nieuwenhuis, S., Ridderinkhof, K. R., Talsma, D., Coles, M. G. H., Holroyd, C. B., Kok, A., et al. (2002). A computational account of altered error processing in older age: Dopamine and the error-related negativity. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 2, 19-36] since they suggest that positive learning signals on correct trials contribute to the reward-related variance in the response- and feedback-locked ERPs. This effect has been overlooked in previous studies that have focused on the role of errors and negative feedback for learning. Importantly, we did not find evidence for an age-related reduction of the ERN, when controlling for performance differences between age groups, which questions the view that older adults are generally impaired in error processing. Finally, we observed a substantial reduction of the FRN in the elderly, which indicates that older adults are less affected by negative feedback and rely more on positive feedback during learning. This finding points to an age-related asymmetry in the processing of feedback valence.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology
  • Aging / psychology
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Contingent Negative Variation / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Feedback, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Probability Learning*
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Psychometrics
  • Reference Values
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*