Disrupted state transition learning as a computational marker of compulsivity

Paul B. Sharp*, Raymond J. Dolan, Eran Eldar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Background Disorders involving compulsivity, fear, and anxiety are linked to beliefs that the world is less predictable. We lack a mechanistic explanation for how such beliefs arise. Here, we test a hypothesis that in people with compulsivity, fear, and anxiety, learning a probabilistic mapping between actions and environmental states is compromised. Methods In Study 1 (n = 174), we designed a novel online task that isolated state transition learning from other facets of learning and planning. To determine whether this impairment is due to learning that is too fast or too slow, we estimated state transition learning rates by fitting computational models to two independent datasets, which tested learning in environments in which state transitions were either stable (Study 2: n = 1413) or changing (Study 3: n = 192). Results Study 1 established that individuals with higher levels of compulsivity are more likely to demonstrate an impairment in state transition learning. Preliminary evidence here linked this impairment to a common factor comprising compulsivity and fear. Studies 2 and 3 showed that compulsivity is associated with learning that is too fast when it should be slow (i.e. when state transition are stable) and too slow when it should be fast (i.e. when state transitions change). Conclusions Together, these findings indicate that compulsivity is associated with a dysregulation of state transition learning, wherein the rate of learning is not well adapted to the task environment. Thus, dysregulated state transition learning might provide a key target for therapeutic intervention in compulsivity.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)2095-2105
Number of pages11
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - 24 Apr 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
P.B.S. is supported by a Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship. E.E. is supported by NIH grants R01MH124092 and R01MH125564, ISF grant 1094/20 and US-Israel BSF grant 2019801. R.J.D. holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator award (098362/Z/12/Z). The Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research is a joint initiative supported by the Max Planck Society and University College London. We thank Toby Wise, Evan Russek, Jessica McFadyen, and Isaac Fradkin for comments on previous drafts.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press.


  • Anxiety
  • compulsivity
  • computational modelling
  • model-based learning
  • transdiagnostic


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