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Monday, July 20 • 7:00pm - 8:00pm
P120: Ageing-related changes in prosocial reinforcement learning and links to psychopathic traits

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Google Meet link: https://meet.google.com/uhj-xmai-eye

Jo Cutler
, Marco Wittmann, Ayat Abdurahman, Luca Hargitai, Daniel Drew, Masud Husain, Patricia Lockwood

Prosocial behaviours, actions that help others, are vital for maintaining social bonds and are linked with improved health. However, our ability to learn which of our actions help others could change as we get older, as existing studies suggest declines in reinforcement learning across the lifespan [1]. This decline in associative learning could be explained by the significant age-related decrease in dopamine transmission [2] which has been suggested to code prediction errors [3]. Alternatively, prosocial learning might not only rely on learning abilities but also on the motivation to help others. This motivation, which is reduced in disorders such as psychopathy, might also shift with age, with a trend for lower levels of antisocial behaviour in older adults [4]. Interestingly, the decrease in dopamine levels in older adults could also support this hypothesis of increased prosociality, as higher dopamine has been linked to lower altruism [5].

Here, using computational modelling of a probabilistic reinforcement learning task (Fig. 1), we tested whether younger (age 18-36) and older (age 60-80, total n=152) adults can learn to gain rewards for themselves, another person (prosocial), or neither individual (control). We replicated existing work showing younger adults were faster to learn when their actions benefitted themselves, compared to when they helped others [6]. Strikingly however, older adults showed a reduced self-bias, compared to younger adults, with learning rates that did not significantly differ between self and other. In other words, older adults showed a relative increase in the willingness to learn about actions that helped others. Moreover, we find that these differences in prosocial learning could emerge from more basic changes in personality characteristics over the lifespan. In older adults, psychopathic traits were significantly reduced and correlated with the difference between prosocial and self learning rates. Importantly, the difference between self and other learning rate was most reduced in older people with the lowest psychopathic traits. Overall, we show that older adults are less self-biased than younger adults, and this change is associated with a decline in psychopathic traits. These findings highlight the importance of examining individual differences across development and have important implications for theoretical and neurobiological accounts of healthy ageing.


1\. Mell T, Heekeren HR, Marschner A, Wartenburger I, Villringer A, Reischies FM. Effect of aging on stimulus-reward association learning. Neuropsychologia. 2005;43(4):554-563.

2\. Li S-C, Lindenberger U, Bäckman L. Dopaminergic modulation of cognition across the life span. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2010;34(5):625-630.

3\. Schultz W. Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2016;18(1):23-32.

4\. Gill DJ, Crino RD. The Relationship between Psychopathy and Age in a Non- Clinical Community Convenience Sample. Psychiatry Psychol Law. 2012;19(4):547-557.

5\. Crockett MJ, Siegel JZ, Kurth-Nelson Z, et al. Dissociable Effects of Serotonin and Dopamine on the Valuation of Harm in Moral Decision Making. Curr Biol. 2015;25(14):1852-1859.

6\. Lockwood PL, Apps MAJ, Valton V, Viding E, Roiser JP. Neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2016;113(35):9763-9768.

avatar for Jo Cutler

Jo Cutler

Postdoc, Psychology, University of Oxford
My research focuses on prosocial decision making. I am interested in questions like why are people altruistic? Which situations make people more prosocial? How do these decisions change across the lifespan?To answer these questions I use tools from psychology and neuroscience including... Read More →

Monday July 20, 2020 7:00pm - 8:00pm CEST
Slot 16