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Assigning the right credit to the wrong action: compulsivity in the general population is associated with augmented outcome-irrelevant value-based learning.

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Moran, Rani 
Moutoussis, Michael 
NSPN consortium 


Compulsive behavior is enacted under a belief that a specific act controls the likelihood of an undesired future event. Compulsive behaviors are widespread in the general population despite having no causal relationship with events they aspire to influence. In the current study, we tested whether there is an increased tendency to assign value to aspects of a task that do not predict an outcome (i.e., outcome-irrelevant learning) among individuals with compulsive tendencies. We studied 514 healthy individuals who completed self-report compulsivity, anxiety, depression, and schizotypal measurements, and a well-established reinforcement-learning task (i.e., the two-step task). As expected, we found a positive relationship between compulsivity and outcome-irrelevant learning. Specifically, individuals who reported having stronger compulsive tendencies (e.g., washing, checking, grooming) also tended to assign value to response keys and stimuli locations that did not predict an outcome. Controlling for overall goal-directed abilities and the co-occurrence of anxious, depressive, or schizotypal tendencies did not impact these associations. These findings indicate that outcome-irrelevant learning processes may contribute to the expression of compulsivity in a general population setting. We highlight the need for future research on the formation of non-veridical action-outcome associations as a factor related to the occurrence and maintenance of compulsive behavior.


Funder: NIHR Senior Investigator


Animals, Anxiety Disorders, Compulsive Behavior, Humans, Motivation, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Reinforcement, Psychology

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Transl Psychiatry

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Springer Science and Business Media LLC
Wellcome Trust (095844/Z/11/Z)
Medical Research Council (MC_G0802534)