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When it comes to learning, what is better? The stick or carrot?

UNIGE researchers have discovered that we are more confident in our decisions and make our choices faster if we are pursuing a reward, but we are more flexible when we try to avoid being punished.


Does the potential to win or lose money influence the trust you have in your decisions? Does any of them help you learn faster? Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam and ENS in Paris, have investigated the importance of trust in a learning context through a system of punishment and monetary reward. They have shown that we become more confident in our choices when we learn to seek rewards than when we learn to avoid losses. However, this confidence evolves rapidly in excessive security, which leaves us thinking that we are better than we actually are. Learning in a context of loss mitigates these errors of judgment. Furthermore, the prospect of monetary gains makes us less flexible, while the fear of losing money preserves our adaptability. You can read all about these results in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.



Evaluating your learning performance is based on how confident you are of your decisions. But can our ability to learn and judge our decisions be influenced by economic factors? In other words, do we judge our performance identically in the face of a situation that involves monetary gains or losses?

UNIGE researchers tested 84 participants to investigate the bias of trust in the context of reward-based learning or punishment, known as reinforcement learning. "The principle is simple", begins Maël Lebreton, researcher at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences of the UNIGE (CISA). "The participants were shown two abstract symbols on a screen. One symbol was associated with a 75% chance of winning 50 cents and the second only 25% chance of winning. For each trial, they had to choose one of the symbols for try to win and assess how confident they were in their choice. As the task progressed, the subjects learned to refine their decisions by identifying the symbol that paid the most. " The principle was reversed for the loss: participants were asked to select the symbol which was associated with the lower probability of losing money and then assessing the accuracy of their decisions.

Trust intensifies when the goal is to win money

Initial results showed that the ability to learn is statistically identical when participants learn to look for gains and when they learn to avoid losses. On the other hand, the participants were much more confident when it came to making money rather than avoiding losing it. "There is a 10% increase in confidence!", Says Lebreton. Given that the task and performance were the same, similar confidence levels should be expected. This difference demonstrates the existence of a prejudice in the learning and trust judgments introduced by the economic context.

However, increasing trust in the context of earnings is not necessarily a good thing. "It is normal to increase confidence during the learning process because the participants increasingly choose the most profitable symbol. But this phenomenon intensifies when it comes to pursuing gain: the participants end up clearly overestimating their performance. This distrust, which is by around 10%, it is not present when it comes to avoiding losing money, "says Lebreton. In fact, in a negative context, people tend to doubt their choices, which means that they evaluate them more accurately. "But this doubt could turn into anxiety and potentially make participants eventually lose their confidence."

When it comes to learning, what could be better: carrot or stick?

UNIGE researchers have discovered that we are more confident in our decisions and make our choices faster - if we are pursuing a reward ... but we are more flexible when we try to avoid being punished.

Fear of losing makes people more flexible

Half of the participants underwent a second experiment: the researchers reversed the quality of the symbols, making the best the worst. The participants in the context of financial gain had more difficulty noticing this change and adapting, while those in the context of financial loss quickly noticed the change and were flexible. "This is probably the result of evolution: when there is a danger, you have to think quickly and adapt your decisions, while when all is well, we try to keep the situation positive", explains Lebreton. This implies that the desire for gain leads to a certain inflexibility among the students, who think that what they paid once will always pay.

These results show that teaching should be adapted to what we want an individual to learn and how. "The learning context is crucial. Fear of loss makes people anxious and begin to doubt their choices, yet it also offers greater flexibility and precision. The appeal of profit, on the other hand, increases self-confidence and well, but reduces our ability to make evaluations. So it is a question of finding a balance between the two elements", continues the Geneva researcher.

"We also found that the participants made their choices faster in the positive context than the negative." Consequently, is it a good idea to list the different forms of learning to see what kind of priorities privilege speed, security or accuracy? And then choose between reward and punishment depending on the objective to be achieved.

Scientists will now try to determine which areas of the brain are related to loss and gain and which areas affect confidence. They will then be able to see how they communicate with each other and influence our judgments and decisions.


Source: www.unige.ch