Intermittent Absence of Control during Reinforcement Learning Interferes with Pavlovian Bias in Action Selection
The ability to control the occurrence of rewarding and punishing events is crucial for our well-being. Two ways to optimize performance are to follow heuristics like Pavlovian biases to approach reward and avoid loss or to rely more on slowly accumulated stimulus–action associations. Although reduced control over outcomes has been linked to suboptimal decision-making in clinical conditions associated with learned helplessness, it is unclear how uncontrollability of the environment is related to the arbitration between different response strategies. This study directly tested whether a behavioral manipulation designed to induce learned helplessness in healthy adults (intermittent loss of control over feedback in a reinforcement learning task; “yoking”) would modulate the magnitude of Pavlovian bias and the neurophysiological signature of cognitive control (frontal midline theta power) in healthy adults. Using statistical analysis and computational modeling of behavioral data and electroencephalographic signals, we found stronger Pavlovian influences and alterations in frontal theta activity in the yoked group. However, these effects were not accompanied by reduced performance in experimental blocks with regained control, indicating that our behavioral manipulation was not potent enough for inducing helplessness and impaired coping ability with task demands. We conclude that the level of contingency between instrumental choices and rewards/punishments modulates Pavlovian bias during value-based decision-making, probably via interfering with the implementation of cognitive control. These findings might have implications for understanding the mechanisms underlying helplessness in various psychiatric conditions.
This is the author’s final version, and the article has been accepted for publication in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.