The Role of First Impression in Operant Learning

Hanan Shteingart
Tal Neiman
Yonatan Loewenstein

We quantified the effect of first experience on behavior in operant learning and studied its underlying computational principles. To that goal, we analyzed more than 200,000 choices in a repeated-choice experiment. We found that the outcome of the first experience has a substantial and lasting effect on participants' subsequent behavior, which we term outcome primacy. We found that this outcome primacy can account for much of the underweighting of rare events, where participants apparently underestimate small probabilities. We modeled behavior in this task using a standard, model-free reinforcement learning algorithm. In this model, the values of the different actions are learned over time and are used to determine the next action according to a predefined action-selection rule. We used a novel non-parametric method to characterize this action-selection rule and showed that the substantial effect of first experience on behavior is consistent with the reinforcement learning model if we assume that the outcome of first experience resets the values of the experienced actions, but not if we assume arbitrary initial conditions. Moreover, the predictive power of our resetting model outperforms previously published models regarding the aggregate choice behavior. These findings suggest that first experience has a disproportionately large effect on subsequent actions, similar to primacy effects in other fields of cognitive psychology. The mechanism of resetting of the initial conditions which underlies outcome primacy may thus also account for other forms of primacy.

September, 2012