Is RLHF More Difficult than Standard RL? A Theoretical Perspective

Yuanhao Wang, Qinghua Liu, Chi Jin

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Reinforcement learning from Human Feedback (RLHF) learns from preference signals, while standard Reinforcement Learning (RL) directly learns from reward signals. Preferences arguably contain less information than rewards, which makes preference-based RL seemingly more difficult. This paper theoretically proves that, for a wide range of preference models, we can solve preference-based RL directly using existing algorithms and techniques for reward-based RL, with small or no extra costs. Specifically, (1) for preferences that are drawn from reward-based probabilistic models, we reduce the problem to robust reward-based RL that can tolerate small errors in rewards; (2) for general arbitrary preferences where the objective is to find the von Neumann winner, we reduce the problem to multiagent reward-based RL which finds Nash equilibria for factored Markov games under a restricted set of policies. The latter case can be further reduced to adversarial MDP when preferences only depend on the final state. We instantiate all reward-based RL subroutines by concrete provable algorithms, and apply our theory to a large class of models including tabular MDPs and MDPs with generic function approximation. We further provide guarantees when K-wise comparisons are available.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAdvances in Neural Information Processing Systems
StatePublished - 2023
Event37th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, NeurIPS 2023 - New Orleans, United States
Duration: Dec 10 2023Dec 16 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Information Systems
  • Signal Processing


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