Uncertainty alters the balance between incremental learning and episodic memory

Jonathan Nicholas, Nathaniel D. Daw, Daphna Shohamy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


A key question in decision-making is how humans arbitrate between competing learning and memory systems to maximize reward. We address this question by probing the balance between the effects, on choice, of incremental trial-and-error learning versus episodic memories of individual events. Although a rich literature has studied incremental learning in isolation, the role of episodic memory in decision-making has only recently drawn focus, and little research disentangles their separate contributions. We hypothesized that the brain arbitrates rationally between these two systems, relying on each in circumstances to which it is most suited, as indicated by uncertainty. We tested this hypothesis by directly contrasting contributions of episodic and incremental influence to decisions, while manipulating the relative uncertainty of incremental learning using a well-established manipulation of reward volatility. Across two large, independent samples of young adults, participants traded these influences off rationally, depending more on episodic information when incremental summaries were more uncertain. These results support the proposal that the brain optimizes the balance between different forms of learning and memory according to their relative uncertainties and elucidate the circumstances under which episodic memory informs decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere81679
StatePublished - 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Uncertainty alters the balance between incremental learning and episodic memory'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this