Solving the Credit Assignment Problem: The Interaction of Explicit and Implicit Learning with Internal and External State Information
In most problem-solving activities, feedback is received at the end of an action sequence. This creates a credit-assignment problem where the learner must associate the feedback with earlier actions, and the interdependencies of actions require the learner to either remember past choices of actions (internal state information) or rely on external cues in the environment (external state information) to select the right actions. We investigated the nature of explicit and implicit learning processes in the credit-assignment problem using a probabilistic sequential choice task with and without external state information. We found that when explicit memory encoding was dominant, subjects were faster to select the better option in their first choices than in the last choices; when implicit reinforcement learning was dominant subjects were faster to select the better option in their last choices than in their first choices. However, implicit reinforcement learning was only successful when distinct external state information was available. The results suggest the nature of learning in credit assignment: an explicit memory encoding process that keeps track of internal state information and a reinforcement-learning process that uses state information to propagate reinforcement backwards to previous choices. However, the implicit reinforcement learning process is effective only when the valences can be attributed to the appropriate states in the system – either internally generated states in the cognitive system or externally presented stimuli in the environment.