Cost-benefit trade-offs in decision-making and learning

Abstract : Value-based decision-making involves trading off the cost associated with an action against its expected reward. Research has shown that both physical and mental effort constitute such subjective costs, biasing choices away from effortful actions, and discounting the value of obtained rewards. Facing conflicts between competing action alternatives is considered aversive, as recruiting cognitive control to overcome conflict is effortful. Moreover, engaging control to proactively suppress irrelevant information that could conflict with task-relevant information would presumably also be cognitively costly. Yet, it remains unclear whether the cognitive control demands involved in preventing and resolving conflict also constitute costs in value-based decisions. The present study investigated this question by embedding irrelevant distractors (flanker arrows) within a reversal-learning task, with intermixed free and instructed trials. Results showed that participants learned to adapt their free choices to maximize rewards, but were nevertheless biased to follow the suggestions of irrelevant distractors. Thus, the perceived cost of investing cognitive control to suppress an external suggestion could sometimes trump internal value representations. By adapting computational models of reinforcement learning, we assessed the influence of conflict at both the decision and learning stages. Modelling the decision showed that free choices were more biased when participants were less sure about which action was more rewarding. This supports the hypothesis that the costs linked to conflict management were traded off against expected rewards. During the learning phase, we found that learning rates were reduced in instructed, relative to free, choices. Learning rates were further reduced by conflict between an instruction and subjective action values, whereas learning was not robustly influenced by conflict between one's actions and external distractors. Our results show that the subjective cognitive control costs linked to conflict factor into value-based decision-making, and highlight that different types of conflict may have different effects on learning about action outcomes.
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Nura Sidarus, Stefano Palminteri, Valérian Chambon. Cost-benefit trade-offs in decision-making and learning. PLoS Computational Biology, Public Library of Science, 2019, 15 (9), pp.e1007326. ⟨10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007326⟩. ⟨inserm-02325156⟩

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