Abstract

Much research focuses on how people acquire concrete stimulus–response associations from experience; however, few neuroscientific studies have examined how people learn about and select among abstract rules. To address this issue, we recorded ERPs as participants performed an abstract rule-learning task. In each trial, they viewed a sample number and two test numbers. Participants then chose a test number using one of three abstract mathematical rules they freely selected from: greater than the sample number, less than the sample number, or equal to the sample number. No one rule was always rewarded, but some rules were rewarded more frequently than others. To maximize their earnings, participants needed to learn which rules were rewarded most frequently. All participants learned to select the best rules for repeating and novel stimulus sets that obeyed the overall reward probabilities. Participants differed, however, in the extent to which they overgeneralized those rules to repeating stimulus sets that deviated from the overall reward probabilities. The feedback-related negativity (FRN), an ERP component thought to reflect reward prediction error, paralleled behavior. The FRN was sensitive to item-specific reward probabilities in participants who detected the deviant stimulus set, and the FRN was sensitive to overall reward probabilities in participants who did not. These results show that the FRN is sensitive to the utility of abstract rules and that the individual's representation of a task's states and actions shapes behavior as well as the FRN.

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