Aberrant reward learning, but not negative reinforcement learning, is related to depressive symptoms: an attentional perspective

Nimrod Hertz-Palmor, Danielle Rozenblit, Shani Lavi, Jonathan Zeltser, Yonatan Kviatek, Amit Lazarov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background Aberrant reward functioning is implicated in depression. While attention precedes behavior and guides higher-order cognitive processes, reward learning from an attentional perspective - the effects of prior reward-learning on subsequent attention allocation - has been mainly overlooked. Methods The present study explored the effects of reward-based attentional learning in depression using two separate, yet complimentary, studies. In study 1, participants with high (HD) and low (LD) levels of depression symptoms were trained to divert their gaze toward one type of stimuli over another using a novel gaze-contingent music reward paradigm - music played when fixating the desired stimulus type and stopped when gazing the alternate one. Attention allocation was assessed before, during, and following training. In study 2, using negative reinforcement, the same attention allocation pattern was trained while substituting the appetitive music reward for gazing the desired stimulus type with the removal of an aversive sound (i.e. white noise). Results In study 1 both groups showed the intended shift in attention allocation during training (online reward learning), while generalization of learning at post-training was only evident among LD participants. Conversely, in study 2 both groups showed post-training generalization. Results were maintained when introducing anxiety as a covariate, and when using a more powerful sensitivity analysis. Finally, HD participants showed higher learning speed than LD participants during initial online learning, but only when using negative, not positive, reinforcement. Conclusions Deficient generalization of learning characterizes the attentional system of HD individuals, but only when using reward-based positive reinforcement, not negative reinforcement.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychological Medicine
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • anhedonia
  • attention allocation
  • depression symptoms
  • negative reinforcement
  • positive reinforcement
  • reward learning
  • selection history


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