Anticipating conflict facilitates controlled stimulus-response selection

J Cogn Neurosci. 2009 Aug;21(8):1461-72. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21136.


Cognitive control can be triggered in reaction to previous conflict, as suggested by the finding of sequential effects in conflict tasks. Can control also be triggered proactively by presenting cues predicting conflict ("proactive control")? We exploited the high temporal resolution of ERPs and controlled for sequential effects to ask whether proactive control based on anticipating conflict modulates neural activity related to cognitive control, as may be predicted from the conflict-monitoring model. ERPs associated with conflict detection (N2) were measured during a cued flanker task. Symbolic cues were either informative or neutral with respect to whether the target involved conflicting or congruent responses. Sequential effects were controlled by analyzing the congruency of the previous trial. The results showed that cueing conflict facilitated conflict resolution and reduced the N2 latency. Other potentials (frontal N1 and P3) were also modulated by cueing conflict. Cueing effects were most evident after congruent than after incongruent trials. This interaction between cueing and sequential effects suggests neural overlap between the control networks triggered by proactive and reactive signals. This finding clarifies why previous neuroimaging studies, in which reactive sequential effects were not controlled, have rarely found anticipatory effects upon conflict-related activity. Finally, the high temporal resolution of ERPs was critical to reveal a temporal modulation of conflict detection by proactive control. This novel finding suggests that anticipating conflict speeds up conflict detection and resolution. Recent research suggests that this anticipatory mechanism may be mediated by preactivation of ACC during the preparatory interval.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Cues
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult