The computational relationship between reinforcement learning, social inference, and paranoia

Joseph Barnby, Mitul Mehta, Michael Moutoussis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Theoretical accounts suggest heightened uncertainty about the state of the world underpin aberrant belief updates, which in turn increase the risk of developing a persecutory delusion. However, this raises the question as to how an agent’s uncertainty may relate to the precise phenomenology of paranoia, as opposed to other qualitatively different forms of belief. We tested whether the same population (n = 693) responded similarly to non-social and social contingency changes in a probabilistic reversal learning task and a modified repeated reversal Dictator game, and the impact of paranoia on both. We fitted computational models that included closely related parameters that quantified the rigidity across contingency reversals and the uncertainty about the environment/partner. Consistent with prior work we show that paranoia was associated with uncertainty around a partner’s behavioural policy and rigidity in harmful intent attributions in the social task. In the non-social task we found that pre-existing paranoia was associated with larger decision temperatures and commitment to suboptimal cards. We show relationships between decision temperature in the non-social task and priors over harmful intent attributions and uncertainty over beliefs about partners in the social task. Our results converge across both classes of model, suggesting paranoia is associated with a general uncertainty over the state of the world (and agents within it) that takes longer to resolve, although we demonstrate that this uncertainty is expressed asymmetrically in social contexts. Our model and data allow the representation of sociocognitive mechanisms that explain persecutory delusions and provide testable, phenomenologically relevant predictions for causal experiments.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1010326
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jul 2022

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