Research Highlights

  • Thursday, 20 November 2014

    Conflict biases learning: less reward, more aversion

    Researchers add touch of conflict to make learning a task more difficult

     

    Department of Psychology Assistant Professor James Cavanagh
    Department of Psychology Assistant Professor James Cavanagh

     

    Seek reward, avoid punishment – it’s a simple, well-established concept of learning long-known to humans. But new research puts a spin on that concept: rewards can become less appealing and punishments more enduring if the learning took place under even subtle degrees of cognitive conflict.

    Researchers at the University of New Mexico and Brown University tested the concept in a new study by adding more conflict to some trials while holding rewards and punishments constant. People showed subtle biases to prefer the trials that they had previously learned without conflict.

    The study, titled “Conflict acts as an implicit cost in reinforcement learning” and published recently in Nature Communications, was led by UNM Department of Psychology Assistant Professor James Cavanagh, and Brown University Associate Professor Michael Frank.

    The study includes new research involving the frontal cortex and the striatum. Both key areas of the brain involved in reinforcement learning. The frontal cortex facilitates stimuli from sensory regions and is important in behavioral responses to stimuli, both external and internal. The striatum, which is located in cerebrum and striped with layers of gray and white matter, plays a pivotal role in learning and motor control.

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