Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Humans can adapt their behavior by learning from the consequences of their own actions or by observing others. Gradual active learning of action–outcome contingencies is accompanied by a shift from feedback- to response-based performance monitoring. This shift is reflected by complementary learning-related changes of two ACC-driven ERP components, the feedback-related negativity (FRN) and the error-related negativity (ERN), which have both been suggested to signal events “worse than expected,” that is, a negative prediction error. Although recent research has identified comparable components for observed behavior and outcomes (observational ERN and FRN), it is as yet unknown, whether these components are similarly modulated by prediction errors and thus also reflect behavioral adaptation. In this study, two groups of 15 participants learned action–outcome contingencies either actively or by observation. In active learners, FRN amplitude for negative feedback decreased and ERN amplitude in response to erroneous actions increased with learning, whereas observational ERN and FRN in observational learners did not exhibit learning-related changes. Learning performance, assessed in test trials without feedback, was comparable between groups, as was the ERN following actively performed errors during test trials. In summary, the results show that action–outcome associations can be learned similarly well actively and by observation. The mechanisms involved appear to differ, with the FRN in active learning reflecting the integration of information about own actions and the accompanying outcomes.