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Interface Problems and the Role of Experience

Is there a role for experience in solving interface problems? On the interface problem involving preferences and primary motivational states, Dickinson & Balleine (1994) suggest a solution involving experience of bodily reactions to stimuli. And perhaps their idea could be extended and adapted to solve the interface problem involving motor representations and intentions.

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We have now encountered two interface problems:

Is there a role for experience in solving the latter interface problem?

Consider this proposal:

  1. Aversion, hunger and other primary motivational states modulate bodily responses to stimuli.

  2. Those bodily responses can be, and often are, experienced.
    For instance, encountering a food you are averse to might trigger peculiar feelings.

  3. These expeirences have valence.
    For example, bodily responses caused by aversion are typically experienced as unpleasant.

  4. The valence of the feelings influences your preferences.
    For example, however much you might want to eat a food initially, you will probably want to eat it a lot less if aversion to it reliably triggers bodily responses experienced as unpleasant.

This seems to be roughly what Dickinson and Balleine are suggesting:

‘primary motivational states, such as hunger, do not determine the value of an instrumental goal directly; rather, animals have to learn about the value of a commodity in a particular motivational state through direct experience with it in that state.’ (Dickinson & Balleine, 1994, p. 7)


‘the assignment of incentive value is based on learning about one’s own hedonic or affective reactions to the goal, reactions that are modulated by primary motivational states.’ (Dickinson & Balleine, 1995, p. 166)


On this proposal, cognition would be inefficient since it relies on experience to sync your preferences with your primary motivational states. But animal cognition is not typically inefficient. So this proposal is probably wrong.

Reply: Loose Coupling

A basic advantage of any dual-process theory is that it permits loose coupling.

In the case of preferences and primary motivational states, loose coupling is useful because

  • your primary motivational states keep you mostly on track
    by, for example, preventing you from starving; and

  • loose coupling means that you can draw on your learning
    to pursue things which appear harmful but are actually beneficial (such as chemotherapy)
    and to avoid things which appear beneficial but are actually harmful (such as opiates).

Compare Dickinson and Balleine:

‘the motivational control over goal-directed actions is, at least in part, indirect and mediated by learning about one's own reactions to primary incentives. By this process [...], goal-directed actions are liberated from the tyranny of primary motivation.’ (Dickinson & Balleine, 1994, p. 16)

Speculative Extension

These ideas might motivate considering whether there is a role for experience in solving the other interface problem about motor representations and intentions (see The Interface Problem: Motor Representation vs Intention):

  1. Motor representations of outcomes structure experiences, imaginings and (prospective) memories
    in ways which provide opportunities for attention to actions directed to those outcomes.

  2. Forming intentions concerning an outcome can influence attention to the action,
    which can influence the persistence of a motor representation of the outcome.

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dual-process theory : Any theory concerning abilities in a particular domain on which those abilities involve two or more processes which are distinct in this sense: the conditions which influence whether one mindreading process occurs differ from the conditions which influence whether another occurs.
interface problem : An interface problem may arise when two kinds of representation sometimes non-accidentally match: the problem is to explain how such matches are possible.
motor representation : The kind of representation characteristically involved in preparing, performing and monitoring sequences of small-scale actions such as grasping, transporting and placing an object. They represent actual, possible, imagined or observed actions and their effects.
primary motivational state : A state such as hunger, thirst, satiety, aversion or sexual arousal. Primary motivational states are closely linked to biological needs. They are not all acquired through learning; and learning has limited effects on them, although classical conditioning can modify them (Capaldi, Hunter, & Lyn, 1997).


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