The term “Pavlovian” bias describes the phenomenon that learning to execute a response to obtain a reward or to inhibit a response to avoid punishment is much easier than learning the reverse. The present study investigated the interplay between this learning bias and individual levels of social anxiety. Since avoidance behavior is a hallmark feature of social anxiety and high levels of social anxiety have been associated with better learning from negative feedback, it is conceivable that the Pavlovian bias is altered in individuals with high social anxiety, with a strong tendency to avoid negative feedback, especially (but not only) in a nogo context. In addition, learning may be modulated by the individual propensity to learn from positive or negative feedback, which can be assessed as a trait-like feature. A sample of 84 healthy university students completed an orthogonalized go/nogo task that decoupled action type (go/nogo) and outcome valence (win/avoid) and a probabilistic selection task based upon which the individual propensity to learn from positive and negative feedback was determined. Self-reported social anxiety and learning propensity were used as predictors in linear mixed-effect model analysis of performance accuracy in the go/nogo task. Results revealed that high socially anxious subjects with a propensity to learn better from negative feedback showed particularly pronounced learning for nogo to avoid while lacking significant learning for nogo to win as well as go to avoid. This result pattern suggests that high levels of social anxiety in concert with negative learning propensity hamper the overcoming of Pavlovian bias in a win context while facilitating response inhibition in an avoidance context. The present data confirm the robust Pavlovian bias in feedback-based learning and add to a growing body of evidence for modulation of feedback learning by individual factors, such as personality traits. Specifically, results show that social anxiety is associated with altered Pavlovian bias, and might suggest that this effect could be driven by altered basal ganglia function primarily affecting the nogo pathway.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)