2018 Hellman Fellow
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Project Title: Learning value from goals
Learning to make choices appropriate in different environments is an essential life skill at which humans excel. As most neurological or psychiatric disorders result in learning impairments, understanding the neuro-cognitive correlates of learning is essential. In this project, Collins proposes to investigate the basic mechanisms of learning from goals, specifically, to show how our understanding of the mechanisms of reward- and punishment-based learning can be extended to the broader class of behaviors in which the outcomes of our choices are not external rewards, but the achievement of internally determined goals. Joint use of computational, neuroscientific and behavioral techniques has greatly advanced our understanding of reinforcement learning: learning from rewards. However, most decisions in everyday life do not lead to external rewards. Instead, humans internally select goals that may not be externally rewarding (e.g. evaluate a proposal by a deadline), and attempt to reach them. In this project, Collins aims to rigorously test the hypothesis that goal-directed learning recruits reinforcement learning processes, and specifically that obtaining a goal has the effect of an internally driven pseudo-reward.