Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Substantial evidence indicates that subjective value is adapted to the statistics of reward expected within a given temporal context. However, how these contextual expectations are learned is poorly understood. To examine such learning, we exploited a recent observation that participants performing a gambling task adjust their preferences as a function of context. We show that, in the absence of contextual cues providing reward information, an average reward expectation was learned from recent past experience. Learning dependent on contextual cues emerged when two contexts alternated at a fast rate, whereas both cue-independent and cue-dependent forms of learning were apparent when two contexts alternated at a slower rate. Motivated by these behavioral findings, we reanalyzed a previous fMRI data set to probe the neural substrates of learning contextual reward expectations. We observed a form of reward prediction error related to average reward such that, at option presentation, activity in ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra and ventral striatum correlated positively and negatively, respectively, with the actual and predicted value of options. Moreover, an inverse correlation between activity in ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra (but not striatum) and predicted option value was greater in participants showing enhanced choice adaptation to context. The findings help understanding the mechanisms underlying learning of contextual reward expectation.