Contextual influence on confidence judgments in human reinforcement learning

by Maël Lebreton, Karin Bacily, Stefano Palminteri, Jan B. Engelmann

The ability to correctly estimate the probability of one’s choices being correct is fundamental to optimally re-evaluate previous choices or to arbitrate between different decision strategies. Experimental evidence nonetheless suggests that this metacognitive process—confidence judgment- is susceptible to numerous biases. Here, we investigate the effect of outcome valence (gains or losses) on confidence while participants learned stimulus-outcome associations by trial-and-error. In two experiments, participants were more confident in their choices when learning to seek gains compared to avoiding losses, despite equal difficulty and performance between those two contexts. Computational modelling revealed that this bias is driven by the context-value, a dynamically updated estimate of the average expected-value of choice options, necessary to explain equal performance in the gain and loss domain. The biasing effect of context-value on confidence, revealed here for the first time in a reinforcement-learning context, is therefore domain-general, with likely important functional consequences. We show that one such consequence emerges in volatile environments, where the (in)flexibility of individuals’ learning strategies differs when outcomes are framed as gains or losses. Despite apparent similar behavior- profound asymmetries might therefore exist between learning to avoid losses and learning to seek gains.

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