A Reliable Measure of Error Sensitivity as Reflected in Brain Activity

Error sensitivity has been implicated in many changes in functioning, ranging from physiological to cognitive. For example, various types of child abuse have been connected to error hypersensitivity. In maltreated children, such sensitivity to errors can be seen as persistent fear of errors, and this could result in long-lasting anxiety for the child. Error sensitivity may also lead to difficult functioning in everyday life. Therefore, error sensitivity is a crucial construct to measure and study.

One way to measure this construct is through the error-related negativity (ERN). The ERN is a component of the ERP, which is neural activity that is recorded through the scalp; it reflects postsynaptic potential activity that is time-locked to an event. This allows the researcher to monitor one’s errors throughout a task. The ERN is seen as a negative deflection 50 milliseconds after one makes an error. It is understood to reflect anterior cingulate cortex functioning: greater activation of ACC may reflect a larger ERN. Like a personality trait, although malleable, it is unique to each individual, constant and doesn’t fluctuate over situations (i.e., doesn’t increase with more errors).

An example of theERN. Source: http://mikeclaffey.com/psyc2/notes-cog-exec-func.html

Researchers have found an enhanced ERN in individuals who would likely experience errors as especially salient and aversive: patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. In the non-clinical population, it was enhanced in those with high negative affect, worry, and behavioural inhibition.

The ERN is usually obtained through a task called the Flankers Task. In this task, an individual is shown a row of 5 black arrows on the computer screen and asked to indicate as fast and accurate as they can the direction of the center arrow. The center arrow may be congruent (i.e., same direction as all other arrows) or incongruent (i.e., different direction than other arrows).

An incongruent trial in the Flankers task. Source: https://codysview.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/flanker-task/

Of course, like most other constructs, there are other ways to obtain the ERN; however, they don’t seem to be as reliable as the Flankers Task. In the Go/no-go task, where participants indicate if they saw an upright triangle and withhold responses to tilted triangles, showed that the ERN increases with more errors. In the Stroop task, where participants press certain buttons to corresponding colours, had low reliability. In comparison, the Flankers Task reached high reliability quickly and didn’t show that the ERN varied with more errors.

Because error sensitivity is seen in childhood maltreatment, mental disorders, and normal populations, all resulting in difficult functioning, it is important that there is a reliable task such as the Flankers task to measure and study it. Choosing the best measure for a construct one is measuring in research is crucial, given that having such a validated task in hand allows researchers to focus on their hypotheses.


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