When is an error not a prediction error? An electrophysiological investigation

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2009 Mar;9(1):59-70. doi: 10.3758/CABN.9.1.59.


A recent theory holds that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) uses reinforcement learning signals conveyed by the midbrain dopamine system to facilitate flexible action selection. According to this position, the impact of reward prediction error signals on ACC modulates the amplitude of a component of the event-related brain potential called the error-related negativity (ERN). The theory predicts that ERN amplitude is monotonically related to the expectedness of the event: It is larger for unexpected outcomes than for expected outcomes. However, a recent failure to confirm this prediction has called the theory into question. In the present article, we investigated this discrepancy in three trial-and-error learning experiments. All three experiments provided support for the theory, but the effect sizes were largest when an optimal response strategy could actually be learned. This observation suggests that ACC utilizes dopamine reward prediction error signals for adaptive decision making when the optimal behavior is, in fact, learnable.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Feedback, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Reward*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult