Milky Way (reward learning)

While you were spending your time in the outer space milk market discovering which cows produce more milk, we were able to study how you learn from feedback and make decisions.

What are we studying?

We learn something new every day, such as trying a new recipe or taking a walk along a new route. Along the way, we learn which of our actions lead to positive outcomes (e.g., discovering a new park that you really enjoy) and which lead to negative results (e.g., the new recipe not being tasty). Based on these experiences, we repeat the things we find rewarding and avoid the things that lead negative outcomes. However, life is constantly changing and sometimes actions that led to positive outcomes in the past may not be as rewarding anymore (e.g., you grew bored of your favourite TV series), which will make you re-evaluate your choices and pursue those things that make you happier.

In the Milky Way task, you had to track which cow was producing more milk and choose the one that was most promising. To be good at this game, you had to be alert and know when the outcomes changed and when your favourite cow is no longer producing enough milk.

Neuroscience has shown that the brain processes that are responsible for this learning can be very well captured using mathematical models from artificial intelligence. These mathematical models are similar to the ones used to train robots and they help us to understand how you learn about what is good and what is not, and link it to the brain processes. For exemple, it has been shown that imprecision in our learning process (e.g. how “noisy” we are when extracting information from the environment) can significantly influence our decision-making and push us to explore new options.

Why are we interested in that?

Some people struggle more than others to learn new information. In this study, we would like to explore whether we can identify specific subgroups, such as those suffering from mental health problems, who struggle with learning and making choices that benefit them most.

Further reading

Hauser TU, Will GJ, Dubois M & Dolan RJ (2019). Developmental Computational Psychiatry. J Child Psychology & Psychiatry 60(4): 412-426

Charles Findling, Vasilisa Skvortsova, Rémi Dromnelle, Stefano Palminteri & Valentin Wyart (2019). Computational noise in reward-guided learning drives behavioral variability in volatile environments. Nature Neuroscience 22,  2066–2077

Scavenger (risk taking)

While you were deciding which deserted spaceship to exploit, we got some data on how likely you are to take risks. Did you take risks to get the big rewards or did you play it safe with the sure thing?

What are we studying?

Life is full of risks, and some people enjoy this more than others. You may take smaller risks every day, such as cooking a new dish, or you may risk big and invest all your money in very risky stocks. Some people are risk-seeking (they really enjoy taking risks), whereas others are risk-averse (they are reluctant to take risks). People who do not take risks usually do not like the uncertainty that comes with it (e.g., when you cook something new, you do not know whether it will turn out tasty). Consequently, some people always go for the safe choices, even if it means that they will never come across new and exciting opportunities (e.g., choosing the same dish to cook every day, never discovering the many exciting dishes that different cuisines offer).

 In the Scavenger game, we asked you to choose between a ‘safe’ option where you knew that you will definitely win/lose points, or the ‘risky’ option where you could win/lose more points, but also there was a chance of getting nothing. We can analyse how many times you chose the ‘safe’ option or the ‘risky’ option and analyse how much of a risk-taker you are. For example, you might have noticed that you behaved differently when you had a chance to win points compared to options when you lost points. Why is that? It is thought that we process losses and gains differently in our brain. Most people really do not like losing something, whether it’s money or goods, therefore they take different risks when there is a chance of losing compared to winning.

How does this work in the brain?

Neuroscientists have found that risk taking is directly related to some of your brain’s chemicals, called neurotransmitters. Especially the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a critical role in risk taking. Previous studies have indeed found that administering dopamine leads to increased risk taking in games like the scavenger game. These studies have also found that risk-taking reduces in older age, when dopamine is assumed to diminish.

Why are we interested in that?

In this study, we would like to explore how risk-taking changes throughout development. It is widely believed that adolescents take more risks than adults, but we would like to figure out what the mechanisms are that underlie those differences, and how it is related to specific brain functions.

Space Observer (metacognition)

While you were deciding which coloured aliens there are more of and telling us how confident you are, we were able to study how accurately you were able to ‘introspect’ your own choices, known as metacognition.

What are we studying?

Every time you make a decision you may think whether the choice was the right one. For example, after picking a pizza place to order dinner online you may wonder whether it was the right choice. Whether you think it was the best choice is reflected in your confidence – when you are very certain that you made the right choice (e.g., because you tried all pizza places and you know this is the best), you will be confident in your decision. On the other hand, when you doubt whether that pizza place was the best choice you are less confident. Knowing whether you made the right choice is very important for the future. If you are not confident in your past choices, you may change your mind and choose something else, but if you are very confident you may repeat your choice and order the same pizza again.

In the ‘Space Observer’ game, you were shown planets that had different coloured aliens and you had to decide which ones were more plentiful. Then, you reported how confident you were whether this was the correct choice. We can use your level of confidence as a measure of your ‘metacognitive ability’ and look at how well you can detect if you have made the right choice. We can do this by looking at how your confidence changes after a correct choice compared to an incorrect choice.

Why are we interested in that?

The ability to understand your own choices has been found to develop over childhood and adolescence. In our previous research, we found that metacognitive insights mature from childhood to adolescence. In this study, we would like to explore whether some groups of individuals, such as those affected by mental health problems, differ in their metacognitive insights.

Further reading:

Moses-Payne ME, Habicht J, Bowler A, Steinbeis N & Hauser TU (2020). I know better! Emerging metacognition allows adolescents to ignore false advice. PsyArXiv

Treasure Hunt (information gathering)

While you were hunting treasures in space, you helped us to collect data on how you gather new information and how (in-)decisive you are. We will combine your data with thousands of other people to understand how gathering new information changes with age and how it is linked to mental health.

What are we studying?

We have designed this game to study how people collect new information before making a decision. This is important, especially if you know only little about what the consequences of these decisions are. For example, some people spend ages looking at the menu in a restaurant and asking the waiter for suggestions, whilst others decide instantly. Why? Sometimes, not spending too much time before making a decision is efficient. However, for big decisions, such as deciding which university to go to or which career path to take, you may want to do a lot more research about your options before making a choice.

In this game, you were gathering information by digging on islands to find out which treasure there is more of. We can use the number of islands you inspected before you decided which treasure there is more of as a measure of information gathering. Inspecting for longer helps you to avoid making wrong choices, however the more sites you inspect, the more time it takes. Therefore, gathering too much information can sometimes be inconvenient. Nevertheless, we know that some people need more certainty in their decisions and consequently, they are willing to spend the time to gather more information. On the other hand, other people are more impulsive and would rather spend less time gathering new information and risk making the wrong choice.

Why are we interested in that?

In our previous research, using a similar game, we have found that adolescents suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as OCD, need more information before they make a decision compared to healthy individuals. Individuals affected by OCD have obsessive thoughts, which can include unwanted thoughts, images, urges, worries or doubts that appear repeatedly in their mind and can make them feel very uncomfortable or anxious. They also experience compulsive behaviours, which are repetitive activities that are done to lessen the distress that comes from unwanted thoughts and images. Individuals who are affected by OCD sometimes also experience indecisiveness and thus need to gather more information.

Why are we doing this study?

We have created this game to explore whether we can detect the extensive information gathering in specific subgroups within individuals who are suffering from OCD using large sample data. With your help, we may also find that some other groups of people gather information differently, which will help us to better understand the relationship between information gathering and mental health.


Further reading:

Hauser TU, Moutoussis M, Iannaccone R, Brem S, Walitza S, Drechsler R, Dayan P & Dolan RJ (2017). Increased decision thresholds enhance information gathering performance in juvenile obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). PLoS Comput Biol 13(4):e1005440

Hauser TU, Moutoussis M, NSPN Consortium, Dayan P & Dolan RJ (2017). Increased decision thresholds trigger extended information gathering across the compulsivity spectrum. Translat Psychiatry 7(12):1296