The role of informative and ambiguous feedback in avoidance behavior: Empirical and computational findings

Ahmed A. Moustafa*, Jony Sheynin, Catherine E. Myers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
27 Downloads (Pure)


Avoidance behavior is a critical component of many psychiatric disorders, and as such, it is important to understand how avoidance behavior arises, and whether it can be modified. In this study, we used empirical and computational methods to assess the role of informational feedback and ambiguous outcome in avoidance behavior. We adapted a computer-based probabilistic classification learning task, which includes positive, negative and no-feedback outcomes; the latter outcome is ambiguous as it might signal either a successful outcome (missed punishment) or a failure (missed reward). Prior work with this task suggested that most healthy subjects viewed the no-feedback outcome as strongly positive. Interestingly, in a later version of the classification task, when healthy subjects were allowed to opt out of (i.e. avoid) responding, some subjects ("avoiders") reliably avoided trials where there was a risk of punishment, but other subjects ("non-avoiders") never made any avoidance responses at all. One possible interpretation is that the "non-avoiders" valued the no-feedback outcome so positively on punishment-based trials that they had little incentive to avoid. Another possible interpretation is that the outcome of an avoided trial is unspecified and that lack of information is aversive, decreasing subjects' tendency to avoid. To examine these ideas, we here tested healthy young adults on versions of the task where avoidance responses either did or did not generate informational feedback about the optimal response. Results showed that provision of informational feedback decreased avoidance responses and also decreased categorization performance, without significantly affecting the percentage of subjects classified as "avoiders." To better understand these results, we used a modified Q-learning model to fit individual subject data. Simulation results suggest that subjects in the feedback condition adjusted their behavior faster following better-than-expected outcomes, compared to subjects in the no-feedback condition. Additionally, in both task conditions, "avoiders" adjusted their behavior faster following worse-than-expected outcomes, and treated the ambiguous no-feedback outcome as less rewarding, compared to non-avoiders. Together, results shed light on the important role of ambiguous and informative feedback in avoidance behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0144083
JournalPLoS One
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes


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