The origins of individual differences in how learning is expressed in rats: A general-process perspective

J Exp Psychol Anim Learn Cogn. 2016 Oct;42(4):313-324. doi: 10.1037/xan0000116.


Laboratory rats can exhibit marked, qualitative individual differences in the form of acquired behaviors. For example, when exposed to a signal-reinforcer relationship some rats show marked and consistent changes in sign-tracking (interacting with the signal; e.g., a lever) and others show marked and consistent changes in goal-tracking (interacting with the location of the predicted reinforcer; e.g., the food well). Here, stable individual differences in rats' sign-tracking and goal-tracking emerged over the course of training, but these differences did not generalize across different signal-reinforcer relationships (Experiment 1). This selectivity suggests that individual differences in sign- and goal-tracking reflect differences in the value placed on individual reinforcers. Two findings provide direct support for this interpretation: the palatability of a reinforcer (as measured by an analysis of lick-cluster size) was positively correlated with goal-tracking (and negatively correlated with sign-tracking); and sating rats with a reinforcer affected goal-tracking but not sign-tracking (Experiment 2). These results indicate that the observed individual differences in sign- and goal-tracking behavior arise from the interaction between the palatability or value of the reinforcer and processes of association as opposed to dispositional differences (e.g., in sensory processes, "temperament," or response repertoire). (PsycINFO Database Record

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Individuality*
  • Learning*
  • Rats