Credit assignment in a motor decision making task is influenced by agency and not sensory prediction errors

Darius E. Parvin, Samuel D. McDougle, Jordan A. Taylor, Richard B. Ivry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Failures to obtain reward can occur from errors in action selection or action execution. Recently, we observed marked differences in choice behavior when the failure to obtain a reward was attributed to errors in action execution compared with errors in action selection (McDougle et al., 2016). Specifically, participants appeared to solve this credit assignment problem by discounting outcomes in which the absence of reward was attributed to errors in action execution. Building on recent evidence indicating relatively direct communication between the cerebellum and basal ganglia, we hypothesized that cerebellar-dependent sensory prediction errors (SPEs), a signal indicating execution failure, could attenuate value updating within a basal ganglia-dependent reinforcement learning system. Here we compared the SPE hypothesis to an alternative, “top-down” hypothesis in which changes in choice behavior reflect participants’ sense of agency. In two experiments with male and female human participants, we manipulated the strength of SPEs, along with the participants’ sense of agency in the second experiment. The results showed that, whereas the strength of SPE had no effect on choice behavior, participants were much more likely to discount the absence of rewards under conditions in which they believed the reward outcome depended on their ability to produce accurate movements. These results provide strong evidence that SPEs do not directly influence reinforcement learning. Instead, a participant’s sense of agency appears to play a significant role in modulating choice behavior when unexpected outcomes can arise from errors in action execution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4521-4530
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number19
StatePublished - May 9 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience


  • Adaptation
  • Agency
  • Credit assignment
  • Decision making
  • Reinforcement
  • Reward


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