Credit Assignment in a Motor Decision Making Task Is Influenced by Agency and Not Sensory Prediction Errors

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Failures to obtain reward can occur from errors in action selection or action execution. Recently, we observed marked differences in choice behavior when the failure to obtain a reward was attributed to errors in action execution compared with errors in action selection (McDougle et al., 2016). Specifically, participants appeared to solve this credit assignment problem by discounting outcomes in which the absence of reward was attributed to errors in action execution. Building on recent evidence indicating relatively direct communication between the cerebellum and basal ganglia, we hypothesized that cerebellar-dependent sensory prediction errors (SPEs), a signal indicating execution failure, could attenuate value updating within a basal ganglia-dependent reinforcement learning system. Here we compared the SPE hypothesis to an alternative, "top-down" hypothesis in which changes in choice behavior reflect participants' sense of agency. In two experiments with male and female human participants, we manipulated the strength of SPEs, along with the participants' sense of agency in the second experiment. The results showed that, whereas the strength of SPE had no effect on choice behavior, participants were much more likely to discount the absence of rewards under conditions in which they believed the reward outcome depended on their ability to produce accurate movements. These results provide strong evidence that SPEs do not directly influence reinforcement learning. Instead, a participant's sense of agency appears to play a significant role in modulating choice behavior when unexpected outcomes can arise from errors in action execution. When learning from the outcome of actions, the brain faces a credit assignment problem: Failures of reward can be attributed to poor choice selection or poor action execution. Here, we test a specific hypothesis that execution errors are implicitly signaled by cerebellar-based sensory prediction errors. We evaluate this hypothesis and compare it with a more "top-down" hypothesis in which the modulation of choice behavior from execution errors reflects participants' sense of agency. We find that sensory prediction errors have no significant effect on reinforcement learning. Instead, instructions influencing participants' belief of causal outcomes appear to be the main factor influencing their choice behavior.

J Neurosci
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Alternate Journal
J. Neurosci.