Advice vs. experience: Genes predict learning style

May, 2011

Three gene variants governing dopamine response in the prefrontal cortex and the striatum affect how likely we are to persist with inaccurate beliefs in the face of contradictory experience.

We learn from what we read and what people tell us, and we learn from our own experience. Although you would think that personal experience would easily trump other people’s advice, we in fact tend to favor abstract information against our own experience. This is seen in the way we commonly distort what we experience in ways that match what we already believe. But there is probably good reason for this tendency (reflected in confirmation bias), even if it sometimes goes wrong.

But of course individuals vary in the extent to which they persist with bad advice. A new study points to genes as a critical reason. Different brain regions are involved in the processing of these two information sources (advice vs experience): the prefrontal cortex and the striatum. Variants in the genes DARPP-32 and DRD2 affect the response to dopamine in the striatum. Variation in the gene COMT, on the other hand, affects dopamine response in the prefrontal cortex.

In the study, over 70 people performed a computerized learning task in which they had to pick the "correct" symbol, which they learned through trial and error. For some symbols, subjects were given advice, and sometimes that advice was wrong.

COMT gene variants were predictive of the degree to which participants persisted in responding in accordance with prior instructions even as evidence against their correctness grew. Variants in DARPP-32 and DRD2 predicted learning from positive and negative outcomes, and the degree to which such learning was overly inflated or neglected when outcomes were consistent or inconsistent with prior instructions.