Suboptimal Choice, Reward-Predictive Signals, and Temporal Information

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Suboptimal choice refers to preference for an alternative offering a low probability of food (suboptimal alternative) over an alternative offering a higher probability of food (optimal alternative). Numerous studies have found that stimuli signaling probabilistic food play a critical role in the development and maintenance of suboptimal choice. However, there is still much debate about how to characterize how these stimuli influence suboptimal choice. There is substantial evidence that the temporal information conveyed by a food-predictive signal governs its function as both a Pavlovian conditioned stimulus and as an instrumental conditioned reinforcer. Thus, we explore the possibility that food-predictive signals influence suboptimal choice via the temporal information they convey. Application of this temporal information-theoretic approach to suboptimal choice provides a formal, quantitative framework that describes how food-predictive signals influence suboptimal choice in a manner consistent with related phenomena in Pavlovian conditioning and conditioned reinforcement. Our reanalysis of previous data on suboptimal choice suggests that, generally speaking, preference in the suboptimal choice procedure tracks relative temporal information conveyed by food-predictive signals for the suboptimal and optimal alternatives. The model suggests that suboptimal choice develops when the food-predictive signal for the suboptimal alternative conveys more temporal information than that for the optimal alternative. Finally, incorporating a role for competition between temporal information provided by food-predictive signals and relative primary reinforcement rate provides a reasonable account of existing data on suboptimal choice.

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