The effects of aging on the interaction between reinforcement learning and attention

Angela Radulescu, Reka Daniel, Yael Niv

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Reinforcement learning (RL) in complex environments relies on selective attention to uncover those aspects of the environment that are most predictive of reward. Whereas previous work has focused on age-related changes in RL, it is not known whether older adults learn differently from younger adults when selective attention is required. In 2 experiments, we examined how aging affects the interaction between RL and selective attention. Younger and older adults performed a learning task in which only 1 stimulus dimension was relevant to predicting reward, and within it, 1 "target" feature was the most rewarding. Participants had to discover this target feature through trial and error. In Experiment 1, stimuli varied on 1 or 3 dimensions and participants received hints that revealed the target feature, the relevant dimension, or gave no information. Group-related differences in accuracy and RTs differed systematically as a function of the number of dimensions and the type of hint available. In Experiment 2 we used trial-by-trial computational modeling of the learning process to test for age-related differences in learning strategies. Behavior of both young and older adults was explained well by a reinforcement-learning model that uses selective attention to constrain learning. However, the model suggested that older adults restricted their learning to fewer features, employing more focused attention than younger adults. Furthermore, this difference in strategy predicted age-related deficits in accuracy. We discuss these results suggesting that a narrower filter of attention may reflect an adaptation to the reduced capabilities of the reinforcement learning system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)747-757
Number of pages11
JournalPsychology and Aging
Issue number7
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Aging
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Selective attention


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