ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2023, Vol. 31 ›› Issue (3): 338-349.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2023.00338

• Conceptual Framework • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Is uncertainty bad? Mixed findings and explanatory model of error processing under uncertainty

YANG Qing(), LI Yaqin   

  1. School of Psychology, Qufu Normal University, Qufu 273165, China
  • Received:2022-04-06 Online:2023-03-15 Published:2022-12-22
  • Contact: YANG Qing


Errors are inevitable in human decision-making and goal-directed behavior. However, errors can bring adverse consequences and are sometimes life-threatening (such as mistakes in high-risk operations). Effectively monitoring errors and optimizing behavior are thus critical to individual survival and development. The occurrence of errors is affected by people’s internal psychological state, when they make decisions and take actions in an uncertain state. Whether the uncertainty enhances error monitoring or not is an important scientific question. Currently, there are contradictory findings. Based on our previous work and theoretical analysis, this project proposes a new theoretical model (i.e., uncertainty-error processing integration mechanism model based on personality differences) to explain the contradictory results. Firstly, we propose that the effect of uncertainty on error processing depends on whether it enhances or weakens motivational level: When the uncertainty is highly relevant to the error processing task at hand (i.e., the error itself leads to uncertain consequence; a high relevant situation), the uncertain state may enhance error monitoring by heightening motivation. Conversely, when the uncertainty is not directly related to the consequence of the error (i.e., a low relevant situation), the uncertainty state cannot heighten or even weaken motivation and thus would not contribute to the enhancement of error monitoring. Secondly, uncertainty-related personality differences (e.g., intolerance of uncertainty) may be another important moderating mechanism, because difference in intolerance of uncertainty implies that individuals differ in their tolerance and error sensitivity to ambiguous situations, thus affecting their motivation levels and modulating error processing in uncertain states. In summary, the current project focuses on the binding situations of error consequence and uncertainty (i.e., high relevant situations) and mainly examines the moderating role of intolerance of uncertainty. Specifically, Study 1 is designed to investigate the cognitive characteristics of error monitoring and post-error adjustment (e.g., error awareness, post-error slowing) in a variety of uncertain situations (e.g., reward/punishment), examining the moderating effect of intolerance of uncertainty with a series of behavioral experiments. Study 2 would explore the underlying electrophysiological representations (e.g., error-related negativity, ERN; error positivity, Pe), time-course, and neural oscillation mechanisms (e.g., parieto-occipital alpha-band oscillations) in EEG experiments. Together, this project is conceived to provide empirical evidence of uncertainty-related personality as a modulation mechanism in error processing under uncertain situations, and offer practical implications in promoting human environmental adaptation and goal achievement. We also acknowledge that this project has not yet been able to fully reveal the specific mechanisms by which motivation affects error processing. In future designs, it is necessary to combine personality with various cognitive factors (e.g., attention, working memory) and comprehensively explore their effects on error processing under uncertainty, and then further validate and enhance the current theoretical model.

Key words: error processing, uncertainty, personality, intolerance of uncertainty, cognitive control

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