Rewarding imperfect motor performance reduces adaptive changes

Exp Brain Res. 2016 Jun;234(6):1441-50. doi: 10.1007/s00221-015-4540-1. Epub 2016 Jan 12.


Could a pat on the back affect motor adaptation? Recent studies indeed suggest that rewards can boost motor adaptation. However, the rewards used were typically reward gradients that carried quite detailed information about performance. We investigated whether simple binary rewards affected how participants learned to correct for a visual rotation of performance feedback in a 3D pointing task. To do so, we asked participants to align their unseen hand with virtual target cubes in alternating blocks with and without spatial performance feedback. Forty participants were assigned to one of two groups: a 'spatial only' group, in which the feedback consisted of showing the (perturbed) endpoint of the hand, or to a 'spatial & reward' group, in which a reward could be received in addition to the spatial feedback. In addition, six participants were tested in a 'reward only' group. Binary reward was given when the participants' hand landed in a virtual 'hit area' that was adapted to individual performance to reward about half the trials. The results show a typical pattern of adaptation in both the 'spatial only' and the 'spatial & reward' groups, whereas the 'reward only' group was unable to adapt. The rewards did not affect the overall pattern of adaptation in the 'spatial & reward' group. However, on a trial-by-trial basis, the rewards reduced adaptive changes to spatial errors.

Keywords: Error-based learning; Motor adaptation; Reinforcement learning; Reward; Visuomotor adaptation.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Adult
  • Feedback, Sensory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Reward*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult