Acute stress selectively impairs learning to act

Sci Rep. 2016 Jul 20;6:29816. doi: 10.1038/srep29816.


Stress interferes with instrumental learning. However, choice is also influenced by non-instrumental factors, most strikingly by biases arising from Pavlovian associations that facilitate action in pursuit of rewards and inaction in the face of punishment. Whether stress impacts on instrumental learning via these Pavlovian associations is unknown. Here, in a task where valence (reward or punishment) and action (go or no-go) were orthogonalised, we asked whether the impact of stress on learning was action or valence specific. We exposed 60 human participants either to stress (socially-evaluated cold pressor test) or a control condition (room temperature water). We contrasted two hypotheses: that stress would lead to a non-selective increase in the expression of Pavlovian biases; or that stress, as an aversive state, might specifically impact action production due to the Pavlovian linkage between inaction and aversive states. We found support for the second of these hypotheses. Stress specifically impaired learning to produce an action, irrespective of the valence of the outcome, an effect consistent with a Pavlovian linkage between punishment and inaction. This deficit in action-learning was also reflected in pupillary responses; stressed individuals showed attenuated pupillary responses to action, hinting at a noradrenergic contribution to impaired action-learning under stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Punishment
  • Pupil / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reward
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*