The Probability of Reinforcement Per Trial Affects Posttrial Responding and Subsequent Extinction but Not Within-Trial Responding

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Abstract

During magazine approach conditioning, rats do not discriminate between a conditional stimulus (CS) that is consistently reinforced with food and a CS that is occasionally (partially) reinforced, as long as the CSs have the same overall reinforcement rate per second. This implies that rats are indifferent to the probability of reinforcement per trial. However, in the same rats, the per-trial reinforcement rate will affect subsequent extinction—responding extinguishes more rapidly for a CS that was consistently reinforced than for a partially reinforced CS. Here, we trained rats with consistently and partially reinforced CSs that were matched for overall reinforcement rate per second. We measured conditioned responding both during and immediately after the CSs. Differences in the per-trial probability of reinforcement did not affect the acquisition of responding during the CS but did affect subsequent extinction of that responding, and also affected the post-CS response rates during conditioning. Indeed, CSs with the same probability of reinforcement per trial evoked the same amount of post-CS responding even when they differed in overall reinforcement rate and thus evoked different amounts of responding during the CS. We conclude that reinforcement rate per second controls rats’ acquisition of responding during the CS, but at the same time, rats also learn specifically about the probability of reinforcement per trial. The latter learning affects the rats’ expectation of reinforcement as an outcome of the trial, which influences their ability to detect retrospectively that an opportunity for reinforcement was missed, and, in turn, drives extinction.

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