Doubting what you already know: Uncertainty regarding state transitions is associated with obsessive compulsive symptoms

Isaac Fradkin*, Casimir Ludwig, Eran Eldar, Jonathan D. Huppert

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Obsessive compulsive (OC) symptoms involve excessive information gathering (e.g., checking, reassurance-seeking), and uncertainty about possible, often catastrophic, future events. Here we propose that these phenomena are the result of excessive uncertainty regarding state transitions (transition uncertainty): a computational impairment in Bayesian inference leading to a reduced ability to use the past to predict the present and future, and to oversensitivity to feedback (i.e. prediction errors). Using a computational model of Bayesian learning under uncertainty in a reversal learning task, we investigate the relationship between OC symptoms and transition uncertainty. Individuals high and low in OC symptoms performed a task in which they had to detect shifts (i.e. transitions) in cue-outcome contingencies. Modeling subjects’ choices was used to estimate each individual participant’s transition uncertainty and associated responses to feedback. We examined both an optimal observer model and an approximate Bayesian model in which participants were assumed to attend (and learn about) only one of several cues on each trial. Results suggested the participants were more likely to distribute attention across cues, in accordance with the optimal observer model. As hypothesized, participants with higher OC symptoms exhibited increased transition uncertainty, as well as a pattern of behavior potentially indicative of a difficulty in relying on learned contingencies, with no evidence for perseverative behavior. Increased transition uncertainty compromised these individuals’ ability to predict ensuing feedback, rendering them more surprised by expected outcomes. However, no evidence for excessive belief updating was found. These results highlight a potential computational basis for OC symptoms and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The fact the OC symptoms predicted a decreased reliance on the past rather than perseveration challenges preconceptions of OCD as a disorder of inflexibility. Our results have implications for the understanding of the neurocognitive processes leading to excessive uncertainty and distrust of past experiences in OCD.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere1007634
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Fradkin et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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