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Flexibility to contingency changes distinguishes habitual and goal-directed strategies in humans

Lee, J. J. & Keramati, M. (2017). Flexibility to contingency changes distinguishes habitual and goal-directed strategies in humans. PLoS Computational Biology, 13(9), article number 9. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005753


Decision-making in the real world presents the challenge of requiring flexible yet prompt behavior, a balance that has been characterized in terms of a trade-off between a slower, prospective goal-directed model-based (MB) strategy and a fast, retrospective habitual model-free (MF) strategy. Theory predicts that flexibility to changes in both reward values and transition contingencies can determine the relative influence of the two systems in reinforcement learning, but few studies have manipulated the latter. Therefore, we developed a novel two-level contingency change task in which transition contingencies between states change every few trials; MB and MF control predict different responses following these contingency changes, allowing their relative influence to be inferred. Additionally, we manipulated the rate of contingency changes in order to determine whether contingency change volatility would play a role in shifting subjects between a MB and MF strategy. We found that human subjects employed a hybrid MB/MF strategy on the task, corroborating the parallel contribution of MB and MF systems in reinforcement learning. Further, subjects did not remain at one level of MB/MF behaviour but rather displayed a shift towards more MB behavior over the first two blocks that was not attributable to the rate of contingency changes but rather to the extent of training. We demonstrate that flexibility to contingency changes can distinguish MB and MF strategies, with human subjects utilizing a hybrid strategy that shifts towards more MB behavior over blocks, consequently corresponding to a higher payoff.

Publication Type: Article
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Q Science > QH Natural history > QH301 Biology
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
SWORD Depositor:
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Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution International Public License 4.0.

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