The role of first impression in operant learning

Hanan Shteingart, Tal Neiman, Yonatan Loewenstein*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


We quantified the effect of first experience on behavior in operant learning and studied its underlying computational principles. To that goal, we analyzed more than 200,000choices in a repeated-choice experiment. We found that the outcome of the first experiencehas a substantial and lasting effect on participants' subsequent behavior, which we termoutcome primacy. We found that this outcome primacy can account for much of the underweighting of rare events, where participants apparently underestimate small probabilities. We modeled behavior in this task using a standard, model-free reinforcement learningalgorithm. In this model, the values of the different actions are learned over time andare used to determine the next action according to a predefined action-selection rule. Weused a novel nonparametric method to characterize this action-selection rule and showed that the substantial effect of first experience on behavior is consistent with the reinforcment learning model if we assume that the outcome of first experience resets the values of the experienced actions, but not if we assume arbitrary initial conditions. Moreover, the predictive power of our resetting model outperforms previouly published models regarding the aggregate choice behavior. These findings suggest that first experience has a disproportionately large effect on subsequent actions, similar to primacy effects in other fields of cognitive psychology. The mechanism of resetting of the initial conditions that underlies outcome primacy may thus also account for other forms of primacy.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)476-488
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2013


  • Operant conditioning
  • Primacy
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Risk aversion
  • Underweighting of rare events


Dive into the research topics of 'The role of first impression in operant learning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this