Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Negative outcomes, as identified from external feedback, cause a short-latency negative deflection in the event-related potential (ERP) waveform over medial frontal electrode sites. This brain response, which has been called an “error related negativity” (ERN) or “medial frontal negativity” (MFN), may reflect a coarse evaluation of performance outcomes, such as the valence of a reward within a monetary gambling task. Yet, for feedback to lead to the adaptive control of behavior, other information concerning reward outcomes besides experienced valence may also be important. Here, we used a gambling task in which subjects chose between two options that could vary in both outcome valence (gain or loss) and outcome magnitude (larger or smaller). We measured changes in brain ERP responses associated with the presentation of the outcomes. We found, as shown in prior studies, that valence of the chosen outcome has an early effect upon frontal ERPs, with maximal difference observed at ∼250 msec. However, our results demonstrated that the early ERP responses to outcome feedback were driven not just by valence but by the combination of valence and magnitude for both chosen and unchosen options. Beginning even earlier, at around 150 msec, responses to high-consequence outcomes resulted in a greater, more centrally distributed, positive potential than those involving low-consequence outcomes, independent of valence. Furthermore, the amplitude of these early effects was significantly modulated by the sequence of outcomes in previous trials. These results indicate that early evaluation of feedback goes beyond simple identification of valence—it involves the consideration of multiple factors, including outcome magnitude, context of unchosen options, and prior history.