Research Article: Reward and punishment learning in daily life: A replication study

Date Published: October 4, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Vera E. Heininga, Eeske van Roekel, Marieke Wichers, Albertine J. Oldehinkel, Pablo Brañas-Garza.


Day-to-day experiences are accompanied by feelings of Positive Affect (PA) and Negative Affect (NA). Implicitly, without conscious processing, individuals learn about the reward and punishment value of each context and activity. These associative learning processes, in turn, affect the probability that individuals will re-engage in such activities or seek out that context. So far, implicit learning processes are almost exclusively investigated in controlled laboratory settings and not in daily life. Here we aimed to replicate the first study that investigated implicit learning processes in real life, by means of the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). That is, using an experience-sampling study with 90 time points (three measurements over 30 days), we prospectively measured time spent in social company and amount of physical activity as well as PA and NA in the daily lives of 18-24-year-old young adults (n = 69 with anhedonia, n = 69 without anhedonia). Multilevel analyses showed a punishment learning effect with regard to time spent in company of friends, but not a reward learning effect. Neither reward nor punishment learning effects were found with regard to physical activity. Our study shows promising results for future research on implicit learning processes in daily life, with the proviso of careful consideration of the timescale used. Short-term retrospective ESM design with beeps approximately six hours apart may suffer from mismatch noise that hampers accurate detection of associative learning effects over time.

Partial Text

Emotions are central to everyday life, as they bring flavor to day-to-day experiences. These flavors guide individuals to determine their subsequent actions. Imagine, for example, to experience moments of joy and excitement while being in the company of friends. Without conscious processing, the co-occurrence of this context (i.e., friends) and its positive internal ‘seasoning’ (i.e., feeling joyful and excited) teaches you that spending more time with friends is potentially rewarding. As a result, the probability that one will seek out the company of friends again in the future increases.

In this study we aimed to replicate the pioneer finding of Wichers and colleagues [11], while overcoming their limitations. Based on their findings, and basic principles of reinforcement theory [3,4], we expected high levels of PA and NA that occurred during social or physical activities would respectively boost or limit re-engagement in these activities through associative learning processes. Furthermore, based on findings from laboratory research [17–20], we expected that these processes would be impaired in individuals with anhedonia. However, we found neither robust evidence of reward learning or punishment learning processes in non-anhedonic individuals, nor signs of deviations of these abilities in individuals with anhedonia. Of the in total 52 reward and punishment learning effects tested, only one survived Bonferroni correction: participants who had spent more time in company of friends and experienced high levels of NA during the same time interval that day, tended to spent less time with friends the next day.

Our study shows promising results that reward and punishment learning processes can be observed in real life. Careful consideration of power and timescale, however, is key. Short-term retrospective ESM design with beeps approximately six hours apart may suffer from mismatch noise that hampers accurate detection of associative learning effects over time. Future research is needed to determine to what extent the time frame of retrospective designs could be used without information on co-occurrence, and whether learning processes can be captured over more than six hours when individuals report on the co-occurrence of behavior and affect.




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