Elizabeth Tricomi

Can negative feedback be as rewarding as positive feedback?

Imagine you are told that you succeeded at a task. Your brain registers that positive feedback with increased activity in the striatum, a part of the brain that relates to rewards. That reaction can be measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Negative feedback—being told you didn’t respond correctly—usually causes decreased brain activity in the striatum. Elizabeth Tricomi, director of the Learning and Decision-Making Laboratory at Rutgers - Newark, and her colleagues decided to see if they could change that effect. Tricomi, who studies reward-processing in the brain, is interested in how the brain’s motivational system ties in with feedback-based learning.

“We wanted to see what would happen if we could get people to think of negative feedback as useful information rather than as punishment for poor performance,” she says.

Working with subjects while their brains were scanned with fMRI, Tricomi showed that, given four options to choose from, negative feedback lowered brain activity. Yet when subjects had only two options to choose from, positive and negative feedback provided equal amounts of information about which option was correct, so both increased brain activity.

Tricomi also found that people preferred feedback trials (being told if they had selected the right choice or not) to being told nothing. Because of that, negative feedback produced a positive brain response.

“Just having those no-feedback trials seemed to make the negative feedback more rewarding to them. By contrast, they realized that negative feedback was helping them reach the goal of learning the task,” Tricomi says. On the fMRI scans, the no-feedback exercises “looked like a punishment response in the brain.”

That fits with one of her larger interests, the influence of subjective feelings or attitudes on learning and on shaping future behavior.

“There’s a fair amount of evidence that there are multiple learning systems in the brain,” she says. In the reward system of the striatum, “the purpose of that reward signal may be to help people associate their actions with their consequences.”

To explore that, Tricomi is looking at a brain sub-region, the caudate in the dorsal striatum, that she calls “very action-sensitive.” For learning, it appears to respond “only when you think your actions could contribute to the outcome.”

By associating actions with positive or negative consequences, individuals would choose to repeat actions that led to positive outcomes and avoid repeating the others. This could be useful in prevention efforts such as motivational interviews that encourage people to avoid smoking or drug-taking by talking about why achieving the goal is important to them.

Illegal drugs also activate the reward areas of the brain that relate to feedback-based learning, with powerful effect. “These brain regions get hijacked and the response to the drug reward is many times higher,” Tricomi says.

“The hope is if you could get people to be motivated toward healthy goals like achievement and away from unhealthy goals, it might be a protective factor,” she adds.


As an undergraduate at Cornell University, Elizabeth Tricomi worked in a laboratory studying learning and memory in birds. She was named a Howard Hughes Research Scholar, received a B.S. in biological sciences, concentrating in neurobiology and behavior, and decided to focus her graduate research on learning processes in humans. Tricomi earned an M.S and Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. While there, she received a Faculty of Arts and Sciences Fellowship, the Tim Post Memorial Award for Research Excellence and an Andrew Mellon Predoctoral Fellowship, among other awards. She was a post-doctoral scholar in psychology at the California Institute of Technology. In 2009, Tricomi came to Rutgers University in Newark as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, where she is also a member of the behavioral and neural sciences program. She has received several grants, including the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, given in 2012, to fund her study of neural processes in feedback-based learning.

Publications  (Tricomi  and co-authors)

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