Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2023 Sep 1. doi: 10.3758/s13415-023-01104-5. Online ahead of print.
How does the similarity between stimuli affect our ability to learn appropriate response associations for them? In typical laboratory experiments learning is investigated under somewhat ideal circumstances, where stimuli are easily discriminable. This is not representative of most real-life learning, where overlapping “stimuli” can result in different “rewards” and may be learned simultaneously (e.g., you may learn over repeated interactions that a specific dog is friendly, but that a very similar looking one isn’t). With two experiments, we test how humans learn in three stimulus conditions: one “best case” condition in which stimuli have idealized and highly discriminable visual and semantic representations, and two in which stimuli have overlapping representations, making them less discriminable. We find that, unsurprisingly, decreasing stimuli discriminability decreases performance. We develop computational models to test different hypotheses about how reinforcement learning (RL) and working memory (WM) processes are affected by different stimulus conditions. Our results replicate earlier studies demonstrating the importance of both processes to capture behavior. However, our results extend previous studies by demonstrating that RL, and not WM, is affected by stimulus distinctness: people learn slower and have higher across-stimulus value confusion at decision when stimuli are more similar to each other. These results illustrate strong effects of stimulus type on learning and demonstrate the importance of considering parallel contributions of different cognitive processes when studying behavior.