Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
In this study, we investigated whether older adults learn more from bad than good choices than younger adults and whether this is reflected in the error-related negativity (ERN). We applied a feedback-based learning task with two learning conditions. In the positive learning condition, participants could learn to choose responses that lead to monetary gains, whereas in the negative learning condition, they could learn to avoid responses that lead to monetary losses. To test the stability of learning preferences, the task involved a reversal phase in which stimulus–response assignments were inverted. Negative learners were defined as individuals that performed better in the negative than in the positive learning condition (and vice versa for positive learners). The behavioral data showed strong individual differences in learning from positive and negative outcomes that persisted throughout the reversal phase and were more pronounced for older than younger adults. Older negative learners showed a stronger tendency to avoid negative outcomes than younger negative learners. However, contrary to younger adults, this negative learning bias was not associated with a larger ERN, suggesting that avoidance learning in older negative learners might be decoupled from error processing. Furthermore, older adults showed learning impairments compared to younger adults. The ERP analyses suggest that these impairments reflect deficits in the ability to build up relational representations of ambiguous outcomes.