Feelings of helplessness increase ERN amplitudes in healthyindividuals

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Experiencing feelings of helplessness has repeatedly been reported to contribute to depressive symptoms and negative affect. In turn, depression and negative affective states are associated, among others, with impairments in performance monitoring. Thus, the question arises whether performance monitoring is also affected by feelings of helplessness.

To this end, after the induction of feelings of helplessness via an unsolvable reasoning task, 37 participants (20 females) performed a modified version of a Flanker task. Based on a previously validated questionnaire, 17 participants were classified as helpless and 20 as not-helpless. Behavioral measures revealed no differences between helpless and not-helpless individuals. However, we observed enhanced Error-Related Negativity (ERN) amplitude differences between erroneous and correct responses in the helpless compared to the not-helpless group. Furthermore, correlational analysis revealed that higher scores of helplessness were associated with increased ERN difference scores. No influence of feelings of helplessness on later stages of performance monitoring was observed as indicated by Error-Positivity (Pe) amplitude.

The present study is the first to demonstrate that feelings of helplessness modulate the neuronal correlates of performance monitoring. Thus, even a short-lasting subjective state manipulation can lead to ERN amplitude variation, probably via modulation of mesencephalic dopamine activity.


★ Research on neural performance monitoring correlates after helplessness induction. ★ Increased feelings of helpless induced ERN amplitude enhancement. ★ Behavioral measures were not affected by feelings of helplessness. ★ Subjective state manipulation manifests itself in increased ERN amplitudes.

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