Errors can elicit an error positivity in the absence of an error negativity: Evidence for independent systems of human error monitoring

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Errors in human behavior elicit a cascade of brain activity related to performance monitoring and error detection. Whereas the early error-related negativity (Ne/ERN) has been assumed to reflect a fast mismatch or prediction error signal in the medial frontal cortex, the later error positivity (Pe) is viewed as a correlate of conscious error processing. A still open question is whether these components represent two independent systems of error monitoring that rely on different types of information to detect an error. Here, we investigated the prediction that the Ne/ERN but not the Pe requires a representation of the correct response to emerge. To this end, we created a condition in which no information about the correct response was available while error detection was still possible. We hypothesized that a Pe, but no Ne/ERN should be obtained in this case. Participants had to classify targets but ignore flankers that were always associated with an incorrect response. Targets but not flankers were masked with varying target-masking intervals. Crucially, on some trials no target at all was presented, thus preventing the representation of a correct response and the emergence of an Ne/ERN. However, because flankers were easily visible and responses to the flankers were always incorrect, detection of these flanker errors was still possible. In line with predictions of a multiple-systems account, we observed a robust Pe in the absence of an Ne/ERN for these errors. Moreover, this Pe relied on the same neural activity as that on trials with a visible target, as revealed by multivariate pattern analysis. These findings demonstrate that the mechanisms reflected by the two components use different types of information to detect errors, providing evidence for independent systems of human error monitoring.

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