Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Conflict Monitoring and Decision Making: Reconciling Two Perspectives on Anterior Cingulate Function

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Conflict Monitoring and Decision Making: Reconciling Two Perspectives on Anterior Cingulate Function

Article excerpt

According to one influential account, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) serves to monitor for conflicts in information processing. According to another influential account, the ACC monitors action outcomes and guides decision making. Both of these perspectives are supported by an abundance of data, making it untenable to reject one view in favor of the other. Instead, the apparent challenge is to discover how the two perspectives might fit together within a larger account. In the present article, we consider the prospects for such a reconciliation. Juxtaposing the conflict-monitoring and decision-making accounts suggests an extension of the conflict-monitoring theory, by which conflict would act as a teaching signal driving a form of avoidance learning. The effect of this mechanism would be to bias behavioral decision making toward cognitively efficient tasks and strategies. We discuss evidence favoring this proposal and present an initial computational model, which lays the foundation for further development

The past decade has seen explosive growth in work addressing the cognitive function of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). As recently as 1990, only a few tentative proposals had been advanced to address the role of the ACC in behavior (MacLean, 1990; Mesulam, 1981; Papez, 1937). Since then, the situation has changed dramatically. The supply of empirical data has burgeoned, thanks to scores of new studies using human neuroimaging and psychophysiologic techniques, human and monkey neurophysiology, and neuroanatomical and neuropsychological analysis. At the same time, an increasingly clear-cut set of theoretical proposals concerning ACC function has emerged. Most research on the ACC is now closely guided by specific predictions proceeding from explicit, although still evolving, theoretical perspectives.

In the present article, we will consider two such perspectives, which together have motivated a large portion of the research on the ACC over the past several years. The first of these perspectives maintains that the ACC serves in part to detect conflicts in information processing, a function that has been referred to as conflict monitoring. The second proposes that the ACC plays a central role in outcome evaluation and decision making. As we shall detail, these two perspectives appear often to have been understood as mutually exclusive competitors (see, e.g., Nachev, 2006). The central purpose of the present article is to propose an integrative account, indicating how the conflict-monitoring and decision-making perspectives might fit coherently into a larger whole.

Some headway toward this objective can be made by simply identifying potential points of alignment between the two theories as they currently stand. However, the case we will make here also involves a new proposal that significantly extends both the conflict-monitoring and the outcome-evaluation/decision-making accounts. Our proposal will be that, within the cost-benefit analyses that underlie behavioral decision making, the occurrence of conflict registers as a cost. More precisely, we will argue that conflict monitoring drives a form of avoidance learning, which biases behavior away from tasks and strategies that are prone to induce conflict and, thus, toward activities that afford relatively efficient information processing.

Before laying out this proposal, we will begin by briefly reviewing the two perspectives that, together, provide its motivation.

The ACC and Conflict Monitoring

A large body of experimental evidence has accrued to support the idea that the ACC is engaged by the occurrence of conflicts in information processing (for reviews, see Botvinick, Cohen, & Carter, 2004; Ridderinkhof, Ullsperger, Crone, & Nieuwenhuis, 2004). The idea was first suggested by neuroimaging data, suggesting that common areas of the ACC are engaged by situations requiring the overriding of prepotent responses, by situations requiring selection among a set of equally permissible responses, and by situations involving errors, all contexts involving response conflict (Botvinick, Braver, Barch, Carter, & Cohen, 2001). …

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