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Ambiguity drives higher-order Pavlovian learning

Zbozinek, Tomislav D. and Pérez, Omar D. and Wise, Toby and Fanselow, Michael S. and Mobbs, Dean (2022) Ambiguity drives higher-order Pavlovian learning. PLOS Computational Biology, 18 (9). Art. No. e1010410. ISSN 1553-7358. PMCID PMC9491594. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010410.

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In the natural world, stimulus-outcome associations are often ambiguous, and most associations are highly complex and situation-dependent. Learning to disambiguate these complex associations to identify which specific outcomes will occur in which situations is critical for survival. Pavlovian occasion setters are stimuli that determine whether other stimuli will result in a specific outcome. Occasion setting is a well-established phenomenon, but very little investigation has been conducted on how occasion setters are disambiguated when they themselves are ambiguous (i.e., when they do not consistently signal whether another stimulus will be reinforced). In two preregistered studies, we investigated the role of higher-order Pavlovian occasion setting in humans. We developed and tested the first computational model predicting direct associative learning, traditional occasion setting (i.e., 1st-order occasion setting), and 2nd-order occasion setting. This model operationalizes stimulus ambiguity as a mechanism to engage in higher-order Pavlovian learning. Both behavioral and computational modeling results suggest that 2nd-order occasion setting was learned, as evidenced by lack and presence of transfer of occasion setting properties when expected and the superior fit of our 2nd-order occasion setting model compared to the 1st-order occasion setting or direct associations models. These results provide a controlled investigation into highly complex associative learning and may ultimately lead to improvements in the treatment of Pavlovian-based mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety disorders, substance use).

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription CentralArticle ItemDiscussion Paper
Zbozinek, Tomislav D.0000-0003-0187-671X
Pérez, Omar D.0000-0002-4168-5435
Wise, Toby0000-0002-9021-3282
Fanselow, Michael S.0000-0002-3850-5966
Mobbs, Dean0000-0003-1175-3772
Additional Information:This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation ( under Grant No. 1911441 granted to TDZ under the supervision of DM and MF. TDZ received a salary from the National Science Foundation ( under Grant No. 1911441. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
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Issue or Number:9
PubMed Central ID:PMC9491594
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20230103-817548100.14
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Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:118619
Deposited By: Research Services Depository
Deposited On:26 Jan 2023 17:55
Last Modified:26 Jan 2023 17:55

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