Imagine you had a hard time learning from a behavior that brought rewards. This very dilemma is a reality for people with schizophrenia.
If you know something about Skinner’s contributions to reinforcement learning, you know that human behavior is shaped by outcomes. Quite simply, behaviors that result in positive outcomes (rewards) should increase in frequency over time, while behaviors that result in negative outcomes (punishments) should decrease over time. But imagine for a second that you had a hard time learning from a behavior that brought rewards. Would you be more likely to engage in that behavior in the future?
This very dilemma is a reality for people with schizophrenia. Such individuals have difficulty learning from behaviors that result in rewarding outcomes and in turn, engage less in those types of behavior. Decreased social engagement is the most common manifestation of motivational impairment in people with schizophrenia and a leading cause of disability in this illness — even though the mechanisms underlying this problem remain unclear.
Through the generosity of APAGS’s Basic Psychological Science Research Grant [next deadline: 12/3/14], participants in my study will use a novel social reinforcement-learning paradigm to interact with virtual players. To investigate learning, virtual player behavior will be designed to result in either positive (rewarding) or negative (punishing) social outcomes.
My proposed research seeks to investigate the following questions:
- How do people with and without schizophrenia learn from social interactions with positive and negative outcomes?
- Can utilizing a social partner’s emotional display facilitate learning from social interactions?
Hopefully, results will increase our understanding of the mechanisms underlying decreased social engagement among people with schizophrenia. My goal is improve the quality of life and social well-being of people with schizophrenia through tested interventions. Given that motivation is also a prominent feature in depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, these findings may also shed light on potential targets for a transdiagnostic approach to treatment.
Editors note: This post was written by Basic Psychological Science Research Grant winner Tim Campellone, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at University of California, Berkeley.