Initial uncertainty in Pavlovian reward prediction persistently elevates incentive salience and extends sign-tracking to normally unattractive cues

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Abstract

Uncertainty is a component of many gambling games and may play a role in incentive motivation and cue attraction. Uncertainty can increase the attractiveness for predictors of reward in the Pavlovian procedure of autoshaping, visible as enhanced sign-tracking (or approach and nibbles) by rats of a metal lever whose sudden appearance acts as a conditioned stimulus (CS+) to predict sucrose pellets as an unconditioned stimulus (UCS). Here we examined how reward uncertainty might enhance incentive salience as sign-tracking both in intensity and by broadening the range of attractive CS+s. We also examined whether initially induced uncertainty enhancements of CS+ attraction can endure beyond uncertainty itself, and persist even when Pavlovian prediction becomes 100% certain. Our results show that uncertainty can broaden incentive salience attribution to make CS cues attractive that would otherwise not be (either because they are too distal from reward or too risky to normally attract sign-tracking). In addition, uncertainty enhancement of CS+ incentive salience, once induced by initial exposure, persisted even when Pavlovian CS–UCS correlations later rose toward 100% certainty in prediction. Persistence suggests an enduring incentive motivation enhancement potentially relevant to gambling, which in some ways resembles incentive-sensitization. Higher motivation to uncertain CS+s leads to more potent attraction to these cues when they predict the delivery of uncertain rewards. In humans, those cues might possibly include the sights and sounds associated with gambling, which contribute a major component of the play immersion experienced by problematic gamblers.

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