Psychophysics of Associative Learning: Quantitative Properties of Subjective Contingency

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Allan and collaborators (Allan, Hannah, Crump, & Siegel, 2008; Allan, Siegel, & Tangen, 2005; Siegel, Allan, Hannah, & Crump, 2009) recently proposed to apply signal detection theory to the analysis of contingency judgment tasks. When exposed to a flow of stimuli, participants are asked to judge whether there is a contingent relation between a cue and an outcome, that is, whether the subjective cue–outcome contingency exceeds a decision threshold. In this context, we tested the following hypotheses regarding the relation between objective and subjective cue–outcome contingency: (a) The underlying distributions of subjective cue–outcome contingency are Gaussian; (b) The mean distribution of subjective contingency is a linear function of objective cue–outcome contingency; and (c) The variance in the distribution of subjective contingency is constant. The hypotheses were tested by combining a streamed-trial contingency assessment task with a confidence rating procedure. Participants were exposed to rapid flows of stimuli at the end of which they had to judge whether an outcome was more (Experiment 1) or less (Experiment 2) likely to appear following a cue and how sure they were of their judgment. We found that although Hypothesis A seems reasonable, Hypotheses B and C were not. Regarding Hypothesis B, participants were more sensitive to positive than to negative contingencies. Regarding Hypothesis C, the perceived cue–outcome contingency became more variable when the contingency became more positive or negative, but only to a slight extent.

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