Is anxiety linked to impaired learning in volatile environments? Study suggests the connection is not clear-cut


If anxiety or depression does have an impact on how people learn in unpredictable situations, it is likely subtle and not easily detectable, according to new research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. The findings suggest that the relationship between mental health conditions and learning in volatile environments is not clear-cut.

Previous work had suggested a potential link between anxiety and difficulties in adjusting to changes in rewards and punishments during learning. The authors behind the new study were specifically interested in understanding whether abnormal learning patterns were specific to anxiety or if they also extended to other affective disorders. By investigating this relationship, the researchers aimed to gain insights into the underlying mechanisms of anxiety and depression and potentially identify new avenues for intervention or treatment.

“We became interested in the topic as a result of work done previously by Tim Behrens and Michael Browning, whose work suggested that anxiety may be fundamentally linked to difficulties in adjusting the way that individuals learn about changes in rewards/punishments,” said study author Nicholas T. Van Dam, an associate professor in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

“The work suggested there may be something quite specific that could be useful to understanding how to help those with anxiety. More recent works had suggested that the problem may not be specific to anxiety but may also relate to depression and so we were keen to explore to what extent these findings might hold true.”

To conduct the new study, the researchers recruited participants from two different sites: Shenzhen University and the University of Melbourne. Sample 1 consisted of 100 Chinese-speaking undergraduate students, while Sample 2 included 91 individuals aged between 18 and 44 years who were part of a prospective longitudinal study. In Sample 2, participants were specifically selected to have mild to moderate psychological distress.

The researchers used a modified version of a previous task that had been developed by Behrens, Browning, and their colleagues. The task was designed to assess volatility-based learning and decision-making processes. It involved an operant learning paradigm where participants had to learn which of two options led to the best feedback. The stimuli used were “slot machine” images with unique colors and characters.

During the task, participants had to make quick decisions by choosing one of the slot machine options presented on the screen. After their response, they received feedback in the form of facial images and short written expressions (e.g., happy faces with statements like “Excellent!” or angry faces with statements like “Terrible!”). The researchers also manipulated volatility during the task to examine its impact on decision-making.

In line with previous research, the researchers observed greater learning-rates under conditions of higher volatility. In other words, when the outcomes were unpredictable and changed a lot, people tended to adapt to feedback more quickly compared to when the outcomes were more stable.

But while previous studies found that people with anxiety tended to have greater difficulty learning in volatile environments, the current study found only weak evidence for this association. Additionally, the study found that general distress, rather than anxiety or depression specifically, was related to learning rates in certain conditions.

“We hypothesized that we would find results similar to previous work, but we did not,” Van Dam told PsyPost. “In other words, we thought we would see strong indicators of impaired learning in association with anxiety and depression. We did find evidence of an association but it was rather subtle and hard to detect – suggesting any link is probably more subtle than prior work has suggested.”

The researchers noted that differences in sample composition, cultural factors, and the level of distress among participants may have contributed to the inconsistent results. While previous research had used electrical shocks or monetary rewards to provide feedback, the current study employed socio-affective cues (facial images and written expressions).

“It’s likely that faces are less powerful in influencing how people learn than money or electrical shock, though people learn every day from very subtle cues in their environment,” Van Dam said. “So, we still have quite a bit of work to due to understand how anxiety and depression might impact the way that people learn about good and bad outcomes.”

Overall, the study highlights the challenges in understanding the relationship between abnormal learning processes and anxiety and depression. The findings suggest that the effects of affective disorders on learning behavior may be difficult to detect and highly dependent on specific circumstances (e.g., the type of reward/punishment).

“People with elevated levels of anxiety and depression do exhibit some difficulties in the way that they learn about rewards and punishments (especially when those rewards/punishments are changing over time),” Van Dam explained. “However, our main finding was that such tasks are really hard to implement as you make the tasks themselves more realistic. As a result, we need to be careful not to draw big sweeping conclusions without taking into consideration how our experiments might be extended to more natural settings.”

The study, “Anxiety and depression related abnormalities in socio-affective learning“, was authored by Dylan Hammond, Pengfei Xu, Hui Ai, and Nicholas T. Van Dam.