Understanding the effects of constraint and predictability in ERP

Kate Stone, Bruno Nicenboim, Shravan Vasishth, Frank Rösler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Intuitively, strongly constraining contexts should lead to stronger probabilistic representations of sentences in memory. Encountering unexpected words could therefore be expected to trigger costlier shifts in these representations than expected words. However, psycholinguistic measures commonly used to study probabilistic processing, such as the N400 event-related potential (ERP) component, are sensitive to word predictability but not to contextual constraint. Some research suggests that constraint-related processing cost may be measurable via an ERP positivity following the N400, known as the anterior post-N400 positivity (PNP). The PNP is argued to reflect update of a sentence representation and to be distinct from the posterior P600, which reflects conflict detection and reanalysis. However, constraint-related PNP findings are inconsistent. We sought to conceptually replicate Federmeier et al. (2007) and Kuperberg et al. (2020), who observed that the PNP, but not the N400 or the P600, was affected by constraint at unexpected but plausible words. Using a pre-registered design and statistical approach maximising power, we demonstrated a dissociated effect of predictability and constraint: strong evidence for predictability but not constraint in the N400 window, and strong evidence for constraint but not predictability in the later window. However, the constraint effect was consistent with a P600 and not a PNP, suggesting increased conflict between a strong representation and unexpected input rather than greater update of the representation. We conclude that either a simple strong/weak constraint design is not always sufficient to elicit the PNP, or that previous PNP constraint findings could be an artifact of smaller sample size.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-71
JournalNeurobiology of Language
Publication statusPublished - 12 Dec 2022


  • N400
  • Anterior PNP
  • Posterior P600
  • Probabilistic processing


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