Computational Psychiatry & Decision-making

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  • PsyArXiv Disengaging punishment avoidance is difficult for humans
  • Sharp PB, Russek EM, Huys QJM, Dolan RJ and Eldar E
  • PsyArxiv
  • Managing multiple goals is essential to wellbeing, yet we are only beginning to understand the computations by which we navigate this resource-demanding balancing act. Here, we sought to elucidate algorithms humans use to balance reward seeking and punishment avoidance goals, and to examine how these algorithms are affected in anxious individuals. To do so, we developed a novel multigoal pursuit task that includes trial-specific instructed goals to either pursue reward (without risk of punishment) or avoid punishment (without the opportunity for reward). Participants (n=192) in general were less flexible in avoiding punishment than in pursuing reward. Thus, when instructed to pursue reward, they often persisted in avoiding features that had previously been associated with punishment, even though at decision time these features were unambiguously benign. Participants also showed no significant downregulation of punishment avoidance when punishment avoidance goals became less abundant in the task. Importantly, individuals with chronic worry had particular difficulty disengaging punishment avoidance during instructed reward seeking. Taken together, the findings demonstrate that people avoid punishment less flexibly than they pursue reward, and this difference is pronounced in individuals with chronic worry.