, Volume 236, Issue 8, pp 2425–2435 | Cite as

Depressive symptoms bias the prediction-error enhancement of memory towards negative events in reinforcement learning

  • Nina RouhaniEmail author
  • Yael Niv
Original Investigation



Depression is a disorder characterized by sustained negative affect and blunted positive affect, suggesting potential abnormalities in reward learning and its interaction with episodic memory.


This study investigated how reward prediction errors experienced during learning modulate memory for rewarding events in individuals with depressive and non-depressive symptoms.


Across three experiments, participants learned the average values of two scene categories in two learning contexts. Each learning context had either high or low outcome variance, allowing us to test the effects of small and large prediction errors on learning and memory. Participants were later tested for their memory of trial-unique scenes that appeared alongside outcomes. We compared learning and memory performance of individuals with self-reported depressive symptoms (N = 101) to those without (N = 184).


Although there were no overall differences in reward learning between the depressive and non-depressive group, depression severity within the depressive group predicted greater error in estimating the values of the scene categories. Similarly, there were no overall differences in memory performance. However, in depressive participants, negative prediction errors enhanced episodic memory more so than did positive prediction errors, and vice versa for non-depressive participants who showed a larger effect of positive prediction errors on memory. These results reflected differences in memory both within group and across groups.


Individuals with self-reported depressive symptoms showed relatively intact reinforcement learning, but demonstrated a bias for encoding events that accompanied surprising negative outcomes versus surprising positive ones. We discuss a potential neural mechanism supporting these effects, which may underlie or contribute to the excessive negative affect observed in depression.


Depression Memory Reinforcement learning Reward Predictions errors Surprise 


Funding information

This work was supported by grant W911NF-14-1-0101 from the Army Research Office (Y.N.), the Ellison Foundation (Y.N.), grant R01MH098861 from the National Institute for Mental Health (Y.N.), and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (N.R.).

Compliance with ethical standards

Participants completed informed consent online and were required to correctly answer questions checking for their understanding of the task before proceeding; procedures were approved by Princeton University’s Institutional Review Board.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  2. 2.Princeton Neuroscience InstitutePrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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