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The recently developed 'two-step' behavioural task promises to differentiate model-based from model-free reinforcement learning, while generating neurophysiologically-friendly decision datasets with parametric variation of decision variables. These desirable features have prompted its widespread adoption. Here, we analyse the interactions between a range of different strategies and the structure of transitions and outcomes in order to examine constraints on what can be learned from behavioural performance. The task involves a trade-off between the need for stochasticity, to allow strategies to be discriminated, and a need for determinism, so that it is worth subjects' investment of effort to exploit the contingencies optimally. We show through simulation that under certain conditions model-free strategies can masquerade as being model-based. We first show that seemingly innocuous modifications to the task structure can induce correlations between action values at the start of the trial and the subsequent trial events in such a way that analysis based on comparing successive trials can lead to erroneous conclusions. We confirm the power of a suggested correction to the analysis that can alleviate this problem. We then consider model-free reinforcement learning strategies that exploit correlations between where rewards are obtained and which actions have high expected value. These generate behaviour that appears model-based under these, and also more sophisticated, analyses. Exploiting the full potential of the two-step task as a tool for behavioural neuroscience requires an understanding of these issues.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS Comput Biol

Publication Date





Choice Behavior, Computer Simulation, Habits, Humans, Models, Neurological, Models, Statistical, Reinforcement, Psychology, Reversal Learning, Task Performance and Analysis