ERP Experimental Design

  • Ruolei GuEmail author


In this chapter, I describe the basic principles of designing an event-related potential (ERP) experiment for psychology research and the rationales behind these principles. I also explain the challenges that researchers often encounter when trying to control potential confounding factors and keeping focus on the psychological processes of interest. I provide general suggestions to resolve these problems according to the literature together with my personal experience. Finally, I introduce some well-known experimental tasks that have been proven to reliably elicit specific ERP components. Researchers may consider developing their studies based on the classic paradigms.


Event-related potential Experimental design Experimental psychology Cognitive process Donders’s subtractive method 



The author sincerely thanks Jingwen Jin, Xuebing Li, Yongling Lin, Tingting Wu, and Jinfeng Ding for their helpful comments on the manuscript. The writing of this chapter was supported by the Major Program of the Chinese National Social Science Foundation (17ZDA324).


  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bentin S, Allison T, Puce A, Perez E, McCarthy G. Electrophysiological studies of face perception in humans. J Cogn Neurosci. 1996;8(6):551–65. Scholar
  3. Beratis IN, Rabavilas A, Nanou ED, Hountala C, Maganioti AE, Capsalis CN, et al. Effect of initiation-inhibition and handedness on the patterns of the P50 event-related potential component: a low resolution electromagnetic tomography study. Behav Brain Funct. 2009;5:51. Scholar
  4. Bocker KB, Brunia CH, van den Berg-Lenssen MM. A spatiotemporal dipole model of the stimulus preceding negativity (SPN) prior to feedback stimuli. Brain Topogr. 1994;7(1):71–88. Scholar
  5. Caharel S, Leleu A, Bernard C, Viggiano MP, Lalonde R, Rebai M. Early holistic face-like processing of Arcimboldo paintings in the right occipito-temporal cortex: evidence from the N170 ERP component. Int J Psychophysiol. 2013;90(2):157–64. Scholar
  6. Cohen J, Polich J. On the number of trials needed for P300. Int J Psychophysiol. 1997;25(3):249–55. Scholar
  7. Cohen MX, Cavanagh JF, Slagter HA. Event-related potential activity in the basal ganglia differentiates rewards from nonrewards: temporospatial principal components analysis and source localization of the feedback negativity: commentary. Hum Brain Mapp. 2011;32(12):2270–1. Scholar
  8. Cohen MX, Ranganath C. Reinforcement learning signals predict future decisions. J Neurosci. 2007;27(2):371–8. Scholar
  9. Coles MGH, Rugg MD. Event-related brain potentials: an introduction. In: Rugg MD, Coles MGH, editors. Electrophysiology of mind: event-related brain potentials and cognition. New York: Oxford University Press; 1995. p. 1–26.Google Scholar
  10. Coulson S, Lovett C. Handedness, hemispheric asymmetries, and joke comprehension. Cogn Brain Res. 2004;19(3):275–88. Scholar
  11. Davis PA. Effects of acoustic stimuli on the waking human brain. J Neurophysiol. 1939;2(6):494–9. Scholar
  12. Deldin P, Keller J, Casas BR, Best J, Gergen J, Miller GA. Normal N400 in mood disorders. Biol Psychol. 2006;71(1):74–9. Scholar
  13. Donchin E, Coles MGH. Is the P300 component a manifestation of context updating? Behav Brain Sci. 1988;11(3):355–72. Scholar
  14. Duncan CC, Barry RJ, Connolly JF, Fischer C, Michie PT, Naatanen R, et al. Event-related potentials in clinical research: guidelines for eliciting, recording, and quantifying mismatch negativity, P300, and N400. Clin Neurophysiol. 2009;120(11):1883–908. Scholar
  15. Eliot L. The trouble with sex differences. Neuron. 2011;72(6):895–8. Scholar
  16. Eppinger B, Kray J, Mock B, Mecklinger A. Better or worse than expected? Aging, learning, and the ERN. Neuropsychologia. 2008;46(2):521–39. Scholar
  17. Eriksen BA, Eriksen CW. Effects of noise letters upon the identification of a target letter in a nonsearch task. Percept Psychophys. 1974;16:143–9. Scholar
  18. Etkin A, Klemenhagen KC, Dudman JT, Rogan MT, Hen R, Kandel ER, Hirsch J. Individual differences in trait anxiety predict the response of the basolateral amygdala to unconsciously processed fearful faces. Neuron. 2004;44(6):1043–55. Scholar
  19. Federmeier KD, Kutas M. A rose by any other name: long-term memory structure and sentence processing. J Mem Lang. 1999;41(4):469–95. Scholar
  20. Folstein JR, Van Petten C. Influence of cognitive control and mismatch on the N2 component of the ERP: a review. Psychophysiology. 2008;45(1):152–70.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Friston KJ, Price CJ, Fletcher P, Moore C, Frackowiak RS, Dolan RJ. The trouble with cognitive subtraction. NeuroImage. 1996;4(2):97–104. Scholar
  22. Gardener EK, Carr AR, Macgregor A, Felmingham KL. Sex differences and emotion regulation: an event-related potential study. PLoS One. 2013;8(10):e73475. Scholar
  23. Gehring WJ, Willoughby AR. The medial frontal cortex and the rapid processing of monetary gains and losses. Science. 2002;295(5563):2279–82. Scholar
  24. Grech R, Cassar T, Muscat J, Camilleri KP, Fabri SG, Zervakis M, et al. Review on solving the inverse problem in EEG source analysis. J Neuroeng Rehabil. 2008;5:25. Scholar
  25. Gu R, Huang YX, Luo YJ. Anxiety and feedback negativity. Psychophysiology. 2010;47(5):961–7. Scholar
  26. Gu R, Zhang D, Luo Y, Wang H, Broster LS. Predicting risk decisions in a modified Balloon Analogue Risk Task: conventional and single-trial ERP analyses. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2018;18(1):99–116. Scholar
  27. Hajcak G, MacNamara A, Olvet DM. Event-related potentials, emotion, and emotion regulation: an integrative review. Dev Neuropsychol. 2010;35(2):129–55. Scholar
  28. Hajcak G, McDonald N, Simons RF. Anxiety and error-related brain activity. Biol Psychol. 2003;64(1–2):77–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Henrich J, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A. The weirdest people in the world? Behav Brain Sci. 2010;33(2–3):61–83;. discussion 83-135. Scholar
  30. Herrmann CS, Knight RT. Mechanisms of human attention: event-related potentials and oscillations. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2001;25(6):465–76. Scholar
  31. Hinojosa JA, Mercado F, Carretie L. N170 sensitivity to facial expression: a meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2015;55:498–509. Scholar
  32. Holroyd CB, Coles MGH. The neural basis of human error processing: reinforcement learning, dopamine, and the error-related negativity. Psychol Rev. 2002;109(4):679–709. Scholar
  33. Iacono WG, Mcgue M. Association between P3 event-related brain potential amplitude and adolescent problem behavior. Psychophysiology. 2006;43(5):465–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Itier RJ, Latinus M, Taylor MJ. Face, eye and object early processing: what is the face specificity? NeuroImage. 2006;29(2):667–76. Scholar
  35. Keil A, Debener S, Gratton G, Junghofer M, Kappenman ES, Luck SJ, et al. Committee report: publication guidelines and recommendations for studies using electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography. Psychophysiology. 2014;51(1):1–21. Scholar
  36. Keil A, Gruber T, Muller MM, Moratti S, Stolarova M, Bradley MM, Lang PJ. Early modulation of visual perception by emotional arousal: evidence from steady-state visual evoked brain potentials. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2003;3(3):195–206. Scholar
  37. Knutson B, Fong GW, Adams CM, Varner JL, Hommer D. Dissociation of reward anticipation and outcome with event-related fMRI. Neuroreport. 2001;12(17):3683–7. Scholar
  38. Kok A, Ramautar JR, De Ruiter MB, Band GP, Ridderinkhof KR. ERP components associated with successful and unsuccessful stopping in a stop-signal task. Psychophysiology. 2004;41(1):9–20. Scholar
  39. Kutas M, Federmeier KD. Thirty years and counting: finding meaning in the N400 component of the event-related brain potential (ERP). Annu Rev Psychol. 2011;62:621–47. Scholar
  40. Kutas M, Hillyard SA. Reading senseless sentences: brain potentials reflect semantic incongruity. Science. 1980;207(4427):203–5. Scholar
  41. Kutas M, Hillyard SA. Brain potentials during reading reflect word expectancy and semantic association. Nature. 1984;307(5947):161–3. Scholar
  42. Liao Y, Gramann K, Feng WF, Deak GO, Li H. This ought to be good: brain activity accompanying positive and negative expectations and outcomes. Psychophysiology. 2011;48(10):1412–9. Scholar
  43. Luck SJ. Ten simple rules for designing and interpreting ERP experiments. In: Handy TC, editor. Event-related potentials: a methods handbook. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2004. p. 17–32.Google Scholar
  44. Luck SJ. An introduction to the event-related potential technique. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT press; 2014.Google Scholar
  45. Luck SJ, Woodman GF, Vogel EK. Event-related potential studies of attention. Trends Cogn Sci. 2000;4(11):432–40. Scholar
  46. Luo Y, Wu T, Broster LS, Feng C, Zhang D, Gu R, Luo YJ. The temporal course of the influence of anxiety on fairness considerations. Psychophysiology. 2014;51(9):834–42. Scholar
  47. Marco-Pallares J, Cucurell D, Munte TF, Strien N, Rodriguez-Fornells A. On the number of trials needed for a stable feedback-related negativity. Psychophysiology. 2011;48(6):852–60. Scholar
  48. Miltner WHR, Braun CH, Coles MGH. Event-related brain potentials following incorrect feedback in a time-estimation task: evidence for a "generic" neural system for error detection. J Cogn Neurosci. 1997;9(6):788–98. Scholar
  49. Miyake A, Friedman NP, Emerson MJ, Witzki AH, Howerter A, Wager TD. The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “frontal lobe” tasks: a latent variable analysis. Cogn Psychol. 2000;41(1):49–100. Scholar
  50. Münte TF, Urbach TP, Düzel E, Kutas M, Boller F, Grafman J, Rizzolatti G. Event-related brain potentials in the study of human cognition and neuropsychology. In: Boller F, Grafman J, Rizzolatti G, editors. Handbook of neuropsychology, vol. 1. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers B.V; 2000. p. 139–235.Google Scholar
  51. Neyedli HF, Welsh TN. The processes of facilitation and inhibition in a cue–target paradigm: insight from movement trajectory deviations. Acta Psychol. 2012;139(1):159–65. Scholar
  52. Nowicka A, Marchewka A, Szatkowska I. Lateralization of repetition effects in event-related potentials to words in left- and right-handed women. Neurosci Lett. 2006;393(2–3):150–4. Scholar
  53. Patel SH, Azzam PN. Characterization of N200 and P300: selected studies of the event-related potential. Int J Med Sci. 2005;2(4):147–54. Scholar
  54. Pernet C, Garrido M, Gramfort A, Maurits N, Michel C, Pang E, et al., Best practices in data analysis and sharing in neuroimaging using MEEG. Retrieved from OSF Preprints website:; 2018
  55. Picton TW, Bentin S, Berg P, Donchin E, Hillyard SA, Johnson R, et al. Guidelines for using human event-related potentials to study cognition: recording standards and publication criteria. Psychophysiology. 2000;37(2):127–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Poldrack RA. Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? Trends Cogn Sci. 2006;10(2):59–63. Scholar
  57. Poldrack RA. The role of fMRI in cognitive neuroscience: where do we stand? Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2008;18(2):223–7. Scholar
  58. Polich J. Updating P300: an integrative theory of P3a and P3b. Clin Neurophysiol. 2007;118(10):2128–48. Scholar
  59. Polich J, Criado JR. Neuropsychology and neuropharmacology of P3a and P3b. Int J Psychophysiol. 2006;60(2):172–85. Scholar
  60. Polich J, Kok A. Cognitive and biological determinants of P300: an integrative review. Biol Psychol. 1995;41(2):103–46. Scholar
  61. Posner MI. Timing the brain: mental chronometry as a tool in neuroscience. PLoS Biol. 2005;3(2):e51. Scholar
  62. Proctor RW, Vu KPL. Stimulus-response compatibility principles: data, theory, and application. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Proudfit GH. The reward positivity: from basic research on reward to a biomarker for depression. Psychophysiology. 2015;52(4):449–59. Scholar
  64. Raihani NJ, Bshary R. Resolving the iterated prisoner’s dilemma: theory and reality. J Evol Biol. 2011;24(8):1628–39. Scholar
  65. Rossion B, Jacques C. Does physical interstimulus variance account for early electrophysiological face sensitive responses in the human brain? Ten lessons on the N170. NeuroImage. 2008;39(4):1959–79. Scholar
  66. Rugg MD, Curran T. Event-related potentials and recognition memory. Trends Cogn Sci. 2007;11(6):251–7. Scholar
  67. San Martín R. Event-related potential studies of outcome processing and feedback-guided learning. Front Hum Neurosci. 2012;6:304. Scholar
  68. Schiebinger L. Scientific research must take gender into account. Nature. 2014;507(7490):9. Scholar
  69. Schultz W, Tremblay L, Hollerman JR. Reward prediction in primate basal ganglia and frontal cortex. Neuropharmacology. 1998;37(4–5):421–9. Scholar
  70. Segalowitz SJ, Davies PL. Charting the maturation of the frontal lobe: an electrophysiological strategy. Brain Cogn. 2004;55(1):116–33. Scholar
  71. Simons RF. The way of our errors: theme and variations. Psychophysiology. 2010;47(1):1–14. Scholar
  72. Stelmach GE. Information-processing framework for understanding human motor behavior. In: Kelso JAS, editor. Human motor behavior: an introduction. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum; 1982. p. 63–91.Google Scholar
  73. Sutton S, Braren M, Zubin J, John ER. Evoked-potential correlates of stimulus uncertainty. Science. 1965;150(3700):1187–8. Scholar
  74. Tal N, Yuval-Greenberg S. Reducing saccadic artifacts and confounds in brain imaging studies through experimental design. Psychophysiology. 2018;55(11):e13215. Scholar
  75. Talmi D, Atkinson R, El-Deredy W. The feedback-related negativity signals salience prediction errors, not reward prediction errors. J Neurosci. 2013;33(19):8264–9. Scholar
  76. Taylor WL. “Cloze procedure”: a new tool for measuring readability. Journalism Bull. 1953;30(4):415–33. Scholar
  77. Thierry G, Martin CD, Downing P, Pegna AJ. Controlling for interstimulus perceptual variance abolishes N170 face selectivity. Nat Neurosci. 2007;10(4):505–11. Scholar
  78. Tian Y, Klein RM, Satel J, Xu P, Yao D. Electrophysiological explorations of the cause and effect of inhibition of return in a cue-target paradigm. Brain Topogr. 2011;24(2):164–82. Scholar
  79. Van Veen V, Carter CS. The anterior cingulate as a conflict monitor: fMRI and ERP studies. Physiol Behav. 2002;77(4–5):477–82. Scholar
  80. Verbruggen F, Logan GD. Response inhibition in the stop-signal paradigm. Trends Cogn Sci. 2008;12(11):418–24. Scholar
  81. Verleger R. On the utility of P3 latency as an index of mental chronometry. Psychophysiology. 1997;34(2):131–56. Scholar
  82. Vidal F, Burle B, Grapperon J, Hasbroucq T. An ERP study of cognitive architecture and the insertion of mental processes: donders revisited. Psychophysiology. 2011;48(9):1242–51. Scholar
  83. Walsh MM, Anderson JR. Modulation of the feedback-related negativity by instruction and experience. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(47):19048–53. Scholar
  84. Walter WG, Cooper R, Aldridge VJ, McCallum WC, Winter AL. Contingent negative variation: an electric sign of sensorimotor association and expectancy in the human brain. Nature. 1964;203:380–4. Scholar
  85. Williams JM, Mathews A, MacLeod C. The emotional Stroop task and psychopathology. Psychol Bull. 1996;120(1):3–24. Scholar
  86. Woodman GF. A brief introduction to the use of event-related potentials in studies of perception and attention. Atten Percept Psychophys. 2010;72(8):2031–46. Scholar
  87. Yeung N, Sanfey AG. Independent coding of reward magnitude and valence in the human brain. J Neurosci. 2004;24(28):6258–64. Scholar
  88. Zhang D. Computational EEG analysis for hyperscanning and social neuroscience. In: Im CH, editor. Computational EEG analysis. Singapore: Springer; 2018. p. 215–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CAS Key Laboratory of Behavioral ScienceInstitute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina

Personalised recommendations