Suboptimal choice in rats: Incentive salience attribution promotes maladaptive decision-making

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Stimuli that are more predictive of subsequent reward also function as better conditioned reinforcers. Moreover, stimuli attributed with incentive salience function as more robust conditioned reinforcers. Some theories have suggested that conditioned reinforcement plays an important role in promoting suboptimal choice behavior, like gambling. The present experiments examined how different stimuli, those attributed with incentive salience versus those without, can function in tandem with stimulus-reward predictive utility to promote maladaptive decision-making in rats. One group of rats had lights associated with goal-tracking as the reward-predictive stimuli and another had levers associated with sign-tracking as the reward-predictive stimuli. All rats were first trained on a choice procedure in which the expected value across both alternatives was equivalent but differed in their stimulus-reward predictive utility. Next, the expected value across both alternatives was systematically changed so that the alternative with greater stimulus-reward predictive utility was suboptimal in regard to primary reinforcement. The results demonstrate that in order to obtain suboptimal choice behavior, incentive salience alongside strong stimulus-reward predictive utility may be necessary; thus, maladaptive decision-making can be driven more by the value attributed to stimuli imbued with incentive salience that reliably predict a reward rather than the reward itself.

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