Decision processes in human performance monitoring.
Steinhauser M., Yeung N.
The ability to detect and compensate for errors is crucial in producing effective, goal-directed behavior. Human error processing is reflected in two event-related brain potential components, the error-related negativity (Ne/ERN) and error positivity (Pe), but the functional significance of both components remains unclear. Our approach was to consider error detection as a decision process involving an evaluation of available evidence that an error has occurred against an internal criterion. This framework distinguishes two fundamental stages of error detection--accumulating evidence (input), and reaching a decision (output)--that should be differentially affected by changes in internal criterion. Predictions from this model were tested in a brightness discrimination task that required human participants to signal their errors, with incentives varied to encourage participants to adopt a high or low criterion for signaling their errors. Whereas the Ne/ERN was unaffected by this manipulation, the Pe varied consistently with criterion: A higher criterion was associated with larger Pe amplitude for signaled errors, suggesting that the Pe reflects the strength of accumulated evidence. Across participants, Pe amplitude was predictive of changes in behavioral criterion as estimated through signal detection theory analysis. Within participants, Pe amplitude could be estimated robustly with multivariate machine learning techniques and used to predict error signaling behavior both at the level of error signaling frequencies and at the level of individual signaling responses. These results suggest that the Pe, rather than the Ne/ERN, is closely related to error detection, and specifically reflects the accumulated evidence that an error has been committed.