Alcohol is known to impair self-regulatory control of behavior, though mechanisms for this effect remain unclear. Here, we tested the hypothesis that alcohol's reduction of negative affect (NA) is a key mechanism for such impairment. This hypothesis was tested by measuring the amplitude of the error-related negativity (ERN), a component of the event-related brain potential (ERP) posited to reflect the extent to which behavioral control failures are experienced as distressing, while participants completed a laboratory task requiring self-regulatory control. Alcohol reduced both the ERN and error positivity (Pe) components of the ERP following errors and impaired typical posterror behavioral adjustment. Structural equation modeling indicated that effects of alcohol on both the ERN and posterror adjustment were significantly mediated by reductions in NA. Effects of alcohol on Pe amplitude were unrelated to posterror adjustment, however. These findings indicate a role for affect modulation in understanding alcohol's effects on self-regulatory impairment and more generally support theories linking the ERN with a distress-related response to control failures.
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