Reward positivity: Reward prediction error or salience prediction error?

Abstract

The reward positivity is a component of the human ERP elicited by feedback stimuli in trial-and-error learning and guessing tasks. A prominent theory holds that the reward positivity reflects a reward prediction error signal that is sensitive to outcome valence, being larger for unexpected positive events relative to unexpected negative events (Holroyd & Coles, 2002). Although the theory has found substantial empirical support, most of these studies have utilized either monetary or performance feedback to test the hypothesis. However, in apparent contradiction to the theory, a recent study found that unexpected physical punishments also elicit the reward positivity (Talmi, Atkinson, & El-Deredy, 2013). The authors of this report argued that the reward positivity reflects a salience prediction error rather than a reward prediction error. To investigate this finding further, in the present study participants navigated a virtual T maze and received feedback on each trial under two conditions. In a reward condition, the feedback indicated that they would either receive a monetary reward or not and in a punishment condition the feedback indicated that they would receive a small shock or not. We found that the feedback stimuli elicited a typical reward positivity in the reward condition and an apparently delayed reward positivity in the punishment condition. Importantly, this signal was more positive to the stimuli that predicted the omission of a possible punishment relative to stimuli that predicted a forthcoming punishment, which is inconsistent with the salience hypothesis.



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