Deterministic response strategies in a trial-and-error learning task

by Holger Mohr, Katharina Zwosta, Dimitrije Markovic, Sebastian Bitzer, Uta Wolfensteller, Hannes Ruge

Trial-and-error learning is a universal strategy for establishing which actions are beneficial or harmful in new environments. However, learning stimulus-response associations solely via trial-and-error is often suboptimal, as in many settings dependencies among stimuli and responses can be exploited to increase learning efficiency. Previous studies have shown that in settings featuring such dependencies, humans typically engage high-level cognitive processes and employ advanced learning strategies to improve their learning efficiency. Here we analyze in detail the initial learning phase of a sample of human subjects (N = 85) performing a trial-and-error learning task with deterministic feedback and hidden stimulus-response dependencies. Using computational modeling, we find that the standard Q-learning model cannot sufficiently explain human learning strategies in this setting. Instead, newly introduced deterministic response models, which are theoretically optimal and transform stimulus sequences unambiguously into response sequences, provide the best explanation for 50.6% of the subjects. Most of the remaining subjects either show a tendency towards generic optimal learning (21.2%) or at least partially exploit stimulus-response dependencies (22.3%), while a few subjects (5.9%) show no clear preference for any of the employed models. After the initial learning phase, asymptotic learning performance during the subsequent practice phase is best explained by the standard Q-learning model. Our results show that human learning strategies in the presented trial-and-error learning task go beyond merely associating stimuli and responses via incremental reinforcement. Specifically during initial learning, high-level cognitive processes support sophisticated learning strategies that increase learning efficiency while keeping memory demands and computational efforts bounded. The good asymptotic fit of the Q-learning model indicates that these cognitive processes are successively replaced by the formation of stimulus-response associations over the course of learning.

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