Learning bias predicts fear acquisition under stress but not cognitive flexibility

Kim M. Caudwell, Sara Baldini, Gemma Calvezzi, Aidan Graham, Kasie Jackson, Isabella Johansson, Madeline Sines, Lee Wei Lim, Luca Aquili

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Individuals differ in their ability to learn from reinforcement and in avoiding punishment, which can be measured by the Probabilistic Selection Task (PST). Recently, some studies have demonstrated that this learning bias is regulated by the dopaminergic system, and that stress can differentially affect the use of positive (i.e., reinforcement) and negative (i.e., avoiding punishment) feedback. The current two studies examined whether performance on the PST can predict measures of goal-directed behaviour as assessed by a cognitive flexibility task (Wisconsin Card Sorting Test) and the acquisition of fear responses, when individuals are exposed to a stressor (Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Test). A total of 26 and 59 healthy participants completed Experiments I and II, respectively. In those who were best at learning from reinforcement, stress increased the processing (i.e., higher skin conductance responses) of non-threatening stimuli during fear acquisition compared to the non-stressful condition, which was not recapitulated in those who were best at avoiding punishment. Additionally, PST performance did not interact with stress to modulate cognitive flexibility, although stress negatively impaired this domain, consistent with previous findings. Furthermore, independent of stress, both positive and negative learning biases were correlated with cognitive flexibility errors. Our results demonstrate that the PST has predictive value for better understanding the determinants of reinforcement and avoidance learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number114384
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank the College of Science, Health, Engineering and Education, Discipline of Psychology at Murdoch University for funding this research. We would also like to thank Micheal Prowacki for methodological assistance and Naomi Zion for helping to collect the data in Experiment II.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s)


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