Humans perseverate on punishment avoidance goals in multigoal reinforcement learning

Paul B. Sharp*, Evan M. Russek, Quentin J.M. Huys, Raymond J. Dolan, Eran Eldar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Managing multiple goals is essential to adaptation, yet we are only beginning to understand computations by which we navigate the resource-demands entailed in so doing. Here, we sought to elucidate how humans balance reward seeking and punishment avoidance goals, and relate this to variation in its expression within anxious individuals. To do so, we developed a novel multigoal pursuit task that includes trial-specific instructed goals to either pursue reward (without risk of punishment) or avoid punishment (without the opportunity for reward). We constructed a computational model of multigoal pursuit to quantify the degree to which participants could disengage from the pursuit goals when instructed to, as well as devote less model-based resources towards goals that were less abundant. In general, participants (n=192) were less flexible in avoiding punishment than in pursuing reward. Thus, when instructed to pursue reward, participants often persisted in avoiding features that had previously been associated with punishment, even though at decision time these features were unambiguously benign. In a similar vein, participants showed no significant downregulation of avoidance when punishment avoidance goals were less abundant in the task. Importantly, we show preliminary evidence that individuals with chronic worry may have difficulty disengaging from punishment avoidance when instructed to seek reward. Taken together, the findings demonstrate that people avoid punishment less flexibly than they pursue reward. Future studies should test in larger samples whether a difficulty to disengage from punishment avoidance contributes to chronic worry.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere74402
StatePublished - Feb 2022

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