What do Reinforcement Learning Models Measure? Interpreting Model Parameters in Cognition and Neuroscience

January 5, 2022

Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2021 Oct;41:128-137. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.06.004. Epub 2021 Jul 3.


Reinforcement learning (RL) is a concept that has been invaluable to fields including machine learning, neuroscience, and cognitive science. However, what RL entails differs between fields, leading to difficulties when interpreting and translating findings. After laying out these differences, this paper focuses on cognitive (neuro)science to discuss how we as a field might over-interpret RL modeling results. We too often assume-implicitly-that modeling results generalize between tasks, models, and participant populations, despite negative empirical evidence for this assumption. We also often assume that parameters measure specific, unique (neuro)cognitive processes, a concept we call interpretability, when evidence suggests that they capture different functions across studies and tasks. We conclude that future computational research needs to pay increased attention to implicit assumptions when using RL models, and suggest that a more systematic understanding of contextual factors will help address issues and improve the ability of RL to explain brain and behavior.

PMID:34984213 | PMC:PMC8722372 | DOI:10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.06.004