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The Limits of Learning from Success

Just like laboratory animals that receive positive reinforcement, humans want to repeat successful behavior. But the world is a complex place and causation is not as simple as we would wish.

What’s the Latest Development?


We naturally think that by repeating successful behavior, more success will follow, e.g. if studying a lot led to a high exam score, studying a lot for the next one will produce a similar result. But a new study of professional basketball players calls into question our ability to correctly infer the consequences of our actions. The study found that if an NBA or WNBA player made a three-point shot, they were more likely to take another. However, after making the first shot, they were statistically less likely to make the second.

What’s the Big Idea?

Our understanding of how positive reinforcement drives behavior comes mostly from laboratories where rats and monkeys receive a reward for behavior ‘X’ and will repeat behavior ‘X’ believing they will receive another reward. But those simple conditions do not mirror the natural world where variables are myriad. “Although people can’t help but learn from the reinforcement signals of the worldthat’s just the way the mind is designedwe need to remember that these signals come with stark limitations…”

Photo credit: shutterstock.com


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