Humans perseverate on punishment avoidance goals in multigoal reinforcement learning

  1. Paul B Sharp  Is a corresponding author
  2. Evan M Russek
  3. Quentin JM Huys
  4. Raymond J Dolan
  5. Eran Eldar
  1. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
  2. University College London, United Kingdom

Abstract

Managing multiple goals is essential to adaptation, yet we are only beginning to understand computations by which we navigate the resource-demands entailed in so doing. Here, we sought to elucidate how humans balance reward seeking and punishment avoidance goals, and relate this to variation in its expression within anxious individuals. To do so, we developed a novel multigoal pursuit task that includes trial-specific instructed goals to either pursue reward (without risk of punishment) or avoid punishment (without the opportunity for reward). We constructed a computational model of multigoal pursuit to quantify the degree to which participants could disengage from the pursuit goals when instructed to, as well as devote less model-based resources towards goals that were less abundant. In general, participants (n=192) were less flexible in avoiding punishment than in pursuing reward. Thus, when instructed to pursue reward, participants often persisted in avoiding features that had previously been associated with punishment, even though at decision time these features were unambiguously benign. In a similar vein, participants showed no significant downregulation of avoidance when punishment avoidance goals were less abundant in the task. Importantly, we show preliminary evidence that individuals with chronic worry may have difficulty disengaging from punishment avoidance when instructed to seek reward. Taken together, the findings demonstrate that people avoid punishment less flexibly than they pursue reward. Future studies should test in larger samples whether a difficulty to disengage from punishment avoidance contributes to chronic worry.

Data availability

All data are available in the main text or the supplementary materials. All code and analyses can be found at: github.com/pq1289/multigoal_RL

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Paul B Sharp

    The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
    For correspondence
    paul.sharp@mail.huji.ac.il
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-4949-1501
  2. Evan M Russek

    Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, University College London, London, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. Quentin JM Huys

    Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, University College London, London, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  4. Raymond J Dolan

    The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0001-9356-761X
  5. Eran Eldar

    The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.

Funding

Fulbright Association (PS00318453)

  • Paul B Sharp

NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research (R01MH124092)

  • Eran Eldar

Wellcome Trust (098362/Z/12/Z)

  • Paul B Sharp

2Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research (Open Access Funding)

  • Paul B Sharp

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Claire M Gillan, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Ethics

Human subjects: Participants gave written informed consent before taking part in the study, which was approved by the university's ethics review board (project ID number 16639/001).

Version history

  1. Received: October 3, 2021
  2. Accepted: February 21, 2022
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: February 24, 2022 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: March 10, 2022 (version 2)
  5. Version of Record updated: October 10, 2022 (version 3)

Copyright

© 2022, Sharp et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.

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  1. Paul B Sharp
  2. Evan M Russek
  3. Quentin JM Huys
  4. Raymond J Dolan
  5. Eran Eldar
(2022)
Humans perseverate on punishment avoidance goals in multigoal reinforcement learning
eLife 11:e74402.
https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.74402

Share this article

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.74402

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