Computerized tasks based on conditioned place preference (CPP) methodology offer the opportunity to study learning mechanisms involved in conditioned reward in humans. In this study, we examined acquisition and extinction of a CPP for virtual environments associated with monetary reward ($).
Healthy men and women (N = 57) completed a computerized CPP task in which they controlled an avatar within a virtual environment. On day 1, subjects completed 6 conditioning trials in which one room was paired with high $ and another with low $. Acquisition of place conditioning was assessed by measuring the time spent in each room during an exploration test of the virtual environments and using self-reported ratings of room liking and preference. Twenty-four hours later, retention and extinction of CPP were assessed during 4 successive exploration tests of the virtual environments.
Participants exhibited a place preference for (spent significantly more time in) the virtual room paired with high $ over the one paired with low $ (p = 0.015). They also reported that they preferred the high $ room (p < 0.001) and liked it significantly more than the low $ room (p < 0.001). However, these preferences were short-lived: 24 h later subjects did not exhibit a behavioral or subjective preference for the high $ room.
These findings show that individuals exhibit transient behavioral and subjective preferences for a virtual environment paired with monetary reward. Variations on this task may be useful to study mechanisms and brain substrates involved in conditioned reward and to examine the influence of drugs upon appetitive conditioning.