Skip to main content Accessibility help

A computational analysis of flanker interference in depression

  • D. G. Dillon (a1), T. Wiecki (a2), P. Pechtel (a1), C. Webb (a1), F. Goer (a1), L. Murray (a1), M. Trivedi (a3), M. Fava (a4), P. J. McGrath (a5), M. Weissman (a5), R. Parsey (a6), B. Kurian (a3), P. Adams (a5), T. Carmody (a3), S. Weyandt (a3), K. Shores-Wilson (a3), M. Toups (a3), M. McInnis (a7), M. A. Oquendo (a5), C. Cusin (a4), P. Deldin (a7), G. Bruder (a5) and D. A. Pizzagalli (a1)...

Depression is characterized by poor executive function, but – counterintuitively – in some studies, it has been associated with highly accurate performance on certain cognitively demanding tasks. The psychological mechanisms responsible for this paradoxical finding are unclear. To address this issue, we applied a drift diffusion model (DDM) to flanker task data from depressed and healthy adults participating in the multi-site Establishing Moderators and Biosignatures of Antidepressant Response for Clinical Care for Depression (EMBARC) study.


One hundred unmedicated, depressed adults and 40 healthy controls completed a flanker task. We investigated the effect of flanker interference on accuracy and response time, and used the DDM to examine group differences in three cognitive processes: prepotent response bias (tendency to respond to the distracting flankers), response inhibition (necessary to resist prepotency), and executive control (required for execution of correct response on incongruent trials).


Consistent with prior reports, depressed participants responded more slowly and accurately than controls on incongruent trials. The DDM indicated that although executive control was sluggish in depressed participants, this was more than offset by decreased prepotent response bias. Among the depressed participants, anhedonia was negatively correlated with a parameter indexing the speed of executive control (r = −0.28, p = 0.007).


Executive control was delayed in depression but this was counterbalanced by reduced prepotent response bias, demonstrating how participants with executive function deficits can nevertheless perform accurately in a cognitive control task. Drawing on data from neural network simulations, we speculate that these results may reflect tonically reduced striatal dopamine in depression.

Corresponding author
* Address for correspondence: D. A. Pizzagalli, Ph.D., Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research, McLean Hospital, 115 Mill Street, Belmont, MA 02478-9106, USA. (Email:
Hide All
Ambady, N, Gray, HM (2002). On being sad and mistaken: mood effects on the accuracy of thin-slice judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, 947961.
APA (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edn. American Psychiatric Publishing: Arlington, VA.
Andrews, PW, Aggen, SH, Miller, GF, Radi, C, Dencoff, JE, Neale, MC (2007). The functional design of depression's influence on attention: a preliminary test of alternative control-process mechanisms. Evolutionary Psychology 5, 584604.
Andrews, PW, Thomson, JA Jr, (2009). The bright side of being blue: depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review 116, 620654.
Au, K, Chan, F, Wang, D, Vertinsky, I (2003). Mood in foreign exchange trading: cognitive processes and performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 91, 322328.
Bagby, RM, Ryder, AG, Schuller, DR, Marshall, MB (2004). The Hamilton depression rating scale: has the gold standard become a lead weight? American Journal of Psychiatry 161, 21632177.
Bogacz, R, Brown, E, Moehlis, J, Holmes, P, Cohen, JD (2006). The physics of optimal decision making: a formal analysis of models of performance in two-alternative forced-choice tasks. Psychological Review 113, 700765.
Bruder, GE, Alvarenga, JE, Alshculer, D, Abraham, K, Keilp, JG, Hellerstein, DJ, Stewart, JW, McGrath, PJ (2014). Neurocognitive predictors of antidepressant clinical response. Journal of Affective Disorders 166, 108114.
Chevalier, G, Deniau, JM (1990). Disinhibition as a basic process in the expression of striatal functions. Trends in Neuroscience 13, 277280.
Chiu, PH, Deldin, PJ (2007). Neural evidence for enhanced error detection in major depressive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry 164, 608616.
Dillon, DG, Rosso, IM, Pechtel, P, Killgore, WDS, Rauch, SL, Pizzagalli, DA (2014). Peril and pleasure: an RDoC-inspired examination of threat responses and reward processing in anxiety and depression. Depression and Anxiety 31, 233249.
Donkin, C, Brown, S, Heathcote, A, Wagenmakers, E-J (2011). Diffusion versus linear ballistic accumulation: different models but the same conclusions about psychological processes? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 18, 6169.
Dubal, S, Jouvent, R (2004). Time-on-task effect in trait anhedonia. European Psychiatry 19, 285291.
Dubal, S, Pierson, A, Jouvent, R (2000). Focused attention in anhedonia: a P3 study. Psychophysiology 37, 711714.
Dutilh, G, Vandekerckhove, J, Forstmann, BU, Keuleers, E, Brysbaert, M, Wagenmakers, E-J (2012). Testing theories of post-error slowing. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 74, 454465.
Epstein, J, Pan, H, Kocsis, JH, Yang, Y, Butler, T, Chusid, J, Hochberg, H, Murrough, J, Strohmayer, E, Stern, E, Silbersweig, DA (2006). Lack of ventral striatal response to positive stimuli in depressed versus normal subjects. American Journal of Psychiatry 163, 17841790.
Eriksen, BA, Eriksen, CW (1974). Effects of noise letters upon the identification of a target letter in a nonsearch task. Perception & Psychophysics 16, 143149.
First, MB, Spitzer, RL, Gibbon, M, Williams, JBW (2002). Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV-TR Axis I Disorders, Research Version, Patient Edition. (SCID-I/P) Biometrics Research, New York State Psychiatric Institute: New York.
Franken, IHA, Rassin, E, Muris, P (2007). The assessment of anhedonia in clinical and non-clinical populations: further validation of the Snaith-Hamilton Pleasure Scale (SHAPS). Journal of Affective Disorders 99, 8389.
Gratton, G, Coles, MG, Donchin, E (1992). Optimizing the use of information: strategic control of activation of responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 121, 480506.
Frank, MJ (2005). Dynamic dopamine modulation in the basal ganglia: a neurocomputational account of cognitive deficits in medicated and non-medicated parkinsonism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17, 5172.
Hamilton, M (1960). A rating scale for depression. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 23, 5662.
Herrera-Guzmán, I, Gudayol-Ferré, E, Lira-Mandujano, J, Herrera-Abarca, J, Herrera-Guzmán, D, Montoya-Pérez, K, Guardia-Olmos, J (2008). Cognitive predictors of treatment response to bupropion and cognitive effects of bupropion in patients. Psychiatry Research 160, 7282.
Hertel, PT (1997). On the contributions of deficient cognitive control to memory impairments in depression. Cognition and Emotion 11, 569583.
Holmes, AJ, Bogden, R, Pizzagalli, DA (2010). Serotonin transporter genotype and action monitoring dysfunction: a possible substrate underlying increased vulnerability to depression. Neuropsychopharmacology 35, 11861197.
Holmes, AJ, Pizzagalli, DA (2008). Spatiotemporal dynamics of error processing dysfunctions in major depressive disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry 65, 179188.
Holmes, AJ, Pizzagalli, DA (2010). Effects of task-relevant incentives on the electrophysiological correlates of error processing in major depressive disorder. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 10, 119128.
Hübner, R, Steinhauser, M, Lehle, C (2010). A dual-stage two-phase model of selective attention. Psychological Review 117, 759784.
Laming, D (1979). Autocorrelation of choice-reaction times. Acta Psychologica 43, 381412.
Mink, JW (1996). The basal ganglia: focused selection and inhibition of competing motor programs. Progress in Neurobiology 50, 381425.
Montague, PR, Dolan, RJ, Friston, KJ, Dayan, P (2012). Computational psychiatry. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16, 7280.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S (1991). Responses to depression and their effects on the duration of depressive episodes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 100, 569582.
Noorani, I, Carpenter, RHS (2013). Antisaccades as decisions: LATER model predicts latency distributions and error responses. European Journal of Neuroscience 37, 330338.
Pe, ML, Vandekerckhove, J, Kuppens, P (2013). A diffusion model account of the relationship between the emotional flanker task and rumination and depression. Emotion 13, 739747.
Pizzagalli, DA, Holmes, AJ, Dillon, DG, Goetz, EL, Birk, JL, Bogdan, R, Dougherty, DD, Iosifescu, DV, Rauch, SL, Fava, M (2009). Reduced caudate and nucleus accumbens response to rewards in unmedicated individuals with major depressive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry 166, 702710.
Powell, MJD (1964). An efficient method for finding the minimum of a function of several variables without calculating derivatives. Computer Journal 7, 155162.
R Core Team (2013). R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing ( R Foundation for Statistical Computing: Vienna, Austria.
Rabbitt, PM (1966). Errors and error correction in choice-response tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology 71, 264272.
Ratcliff, R, Frank, MJ (2012). Reinforcement-based decision making in corticostriatal circuits: mutual constraints by neurocomputational and diffusion models. Neural Computation 24, 11861229.
Ratcliff, R, McKoon, G (2008). The diffusion decision model: theory and data for two-choice decision tasks. Neural Computation 20, 873922.
Robinson, MD, Meier, BP, Wilkowski, BM, Ode, S (2007). Introversion, inhibition, and displayed anxiety: the role of error reactivity processes. Journal of Research in Personality 41, 558578.
Rush, AJ, Trivedi, MH, Ibrahim, HM, Carmody, TJ, Arnow, B, Klein, DN, Markowitz, JC, Ninan, PT, Kornstein, S, Manber, R, Thase, ME, Kocsis, JH, Keller, MB (2003). The 16-item Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology (QIDS) Clinician Rating (QIDS-C) and Self-Report (QIDS-SR): a psychometric evaluation in patients with chronic major depression. Biological Psychiatry 54, 573583.
Siegle, GJ, Steinhauer, SR, Thase, ME (2004). Pupillary assessment and computational modeling of the Stroop task in depression. International Journal of Psychophysiology 52, 6376.
Snaith, RP, Hamilton, M, Morley, S, Humayan, A, Hargreaves, D, Trigwell, P (1995). A scale for the assessment of hedonic tone: the Snaith-Hamilton Pleasure Scale. British Journal of Psychiatry 167, 99103.
Snyder, HR (2013). Major depressive disorder is associated with broad impairments on neuropsychological measures of executive function: a meta-analysis and review. Psychological Bulletin 139, 81132.
Snyder, HR, Kaiser, RH, Whisman, MA, Turner, AEJ, Guild, RM, Munakata, Y (2014). Opposite effects of anxiety and depressive symptoms on executive function: the case of selecting among competing options. Cognition and Emotion 28, 893902.
Taylor, BP, Bruder, GE, Stewart, JW, McGrath, PJ, Halperin, J, Ehrlichman, H, Quitkin, FM (2006). Psychomotor slowing as a predictor of fluoxetine nonresponse in depressed outpatients. American Journal of Psychiatry 163, 7378.
Treadway, MT, Zald, DH (2011). Reconsidering anhedonia in depression: lessons from translational neuroscience. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 35, 537555.
Turner, BM, Sederberg, PB (2014). A generalized, likelihood-free method for posterior estimation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 21, 227250.
Vallesi, A, Canalaz, F, Balestrieri, M, Brambilla, P (2015). Modulating speed-accuracy strategies in major depression. Journal of Psychiatric Research 60, 103108.
Wagner, G, Sinsel, E, Sobanski, T, Köhler, S, Marinou, V, Mentzel, HJ, Sauer, H, Schlösser, RG (2006). Cortical inefficiency in patients with unipolar depression: an event-related fMRI study with the Stroop task. Biological Psychiatry 59, 958965.
Wales, DJ, Doye, JPK (1997). Global optimization by basin-hopping and the lowest energy structures of Lennard-Jones clusters containing up to 110 atoms. Journal of Physical Chemistry A 101, 51115116.
White, CN, Ratcliff, R, Starns, JJ (2011). Diffusion models of the flanker task: discrete versus gradual attentional selection. Cognitive Psychology 63, 210238.
Wiecki, TV, Frank, MJ (2010). Neurocomputational models of motor and cognitive deficits in Parkinson's disease. Progress in Brain Research 183, 275297.
Wiecki, TV, Frank, MJ (2013). A computational model of inhibitory control in frontal cortex and basal ganglia. Psychological Review 120, 329355.
Wiecki, TV, Poland, JS, Frank, MJ (in press). Model-based cognitive neuroscience approaches to computational psychiatry: clustering and classification. Clinical Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/2167702614565359.
Wiecki, TV, Riedinger, K, Meyerhofer, A, Schmidt, W, Frank, MJ (2009). A neurocomputational account of catalepsy sensitization induced by D2-receptor-blockade in rats: context-dependency, extinction, and renewal. Psychopharmacology 204, 265277.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Dillon supplementary material

 Word (125 KB)
125 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed