The motivation behind emotional learning

Learn more about our new research article “Achievement motivation modulates Pavlovian aversive conditioning to goal-relevant stimuli” published by the npj Science of Learning in this Behind the Paper interview ⎮3 min read
The motivation behind emotional learning

Our article “Achievement motivation modulates Pavlovian aversive conditioning to goal-relevant stimuli” was recently published in the journal npj Science of Learning. This work resulted from the collaboration between Gilles Pourtois, who is based at Ghent University (Belgium), Aude Ferrero, David Sander, and myself, who are based at the University of Geneva (Switzerland). It is part of a research program in which we study the psychological determinants of emotional learning in humans. The Nature team were interested in knowing more about our research, and we are delighted to share some insights into how an individual’s motivation can shape basic learning processes, such as Pavlovian conditioning.

What is your main research focus?

The main aim of our research is to examine the links between emotion and the basic mechanisms underlying learning in humans. In particular, we are interested in testing the hypothesis that humans preferentially learn about objects and situations that are relevant to their concerns, such as their goals, needs, and/or values and that this preferential learning is largely modulated by individual differences in affect and motivation. To assess this hypothesis, our study investigated whether Pavlovian aversive conditioning, one of the most fundamental forms of learning in the animal kingdom, can be enhanced in response to initially neutral stimuli that were temporarily associated with a high relevance for task goals (i.e., goal-relevant stimuli) in comparison with goal-irrelevant stimuli, and what is the impact of inter-individual differences in achievement motivation on this process. 

Why did you decide to investigate this topic?

In this research program, we seek to challenge and offer an alternative theoretical framework to the dominant view held in the human emotional learning literature, which states that only stimuli that have threatened survival of the species across evolution are preferentially associated with aversive events during Pavlovian aversive conditioning. In contrast with this view, we suggest that preferential or enhanced Pavlovian aversive conditioning is not selective to threat-related stimuli, but is underlain by a more general mechanism that is shared across stimuli that are detected as relevant to the organism independently of their inherent threat value and their evolutionary history per se.

What did your study reveal?

Our study indicated that achievement motivation modulated Pavlovian aversive conditioning to goal-relevant versus goal-irrelevant stimuli. More specifically, participants with high achievement motivation more readily associated goal-relevant stimuli with an aversive outcome (i.e., an electric stimulation) relative to goal-irrelevant stimuli, whereas no such difference was observed in individuals with lower achievement motivation. These findings reflect that stimuli that are relevant for an individual’s goals can facilitate Pavlovian aversive learning, even though they are devoid of any pre-existing threat value or biological evolutionary significance, and, importantly, that the occurrence of such preferential learning critically depends on inter-individual differences in the organism’s concerns, such as achievement motivation.

Why are your research findings important?

Our research findings suggest that enhanced Pavlovian aversive conditioning in humans is probably not driven by a threat-specific mechanism, but rather by a more general mechanism of relevance detection. They moreover highlight the pivotal influence that individual differences can exert on basic learning processes such as Pavlovian conditioning. Accordingly, our study contributes to advocating a change of perspective in the conceptualization of the basic mechanisms underlying Pavlovian aversive conditioning in humans by suggesting that these mechanisms are likely more flexible than previously thought.

What next? What is the future for this field?

At a basic science level, an interesting and important avenue for future research will be to expand the current findings with the aim of further establishing and characterizing the role of relevance detection in emotional learning. This line of research could have translational implications towards a better understanding of emotional learning impairments that are typically associated with specific affective disorders, such as anxiety disorders, phobias, or addictions, and thereby hopefully aid in developing and validating individualised and targeted interventions for these conditions. Given the key role of the individual’s motivation in learning, this research could additionally provide insights into how specific individual motivation dispositions may influence various forms of learning besides Pavlovian conditioning in educational contexts for instance.

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