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Rats distinguish between absence of events and lack of evidence in contingency learning.


The goal of three experiments was to study whether rats are aware of the difference between absence of events and lack of evidence. We used a Pavlovian extinction paradigm in which lights consistently signaling sucrose were suddenly paired with the absence of sucrose. The crucial manipulation involved the absent outcomes in the extinction phase. Whereas in the Cover conditions, access to the drinking receptacle was blocked by a metal plate, in the No Cover conditions, the drinking receptacle was accessible. The Test phase showed that in the Cover conditions, the measured expectancies of sucrose were clearly at a higher level than in the No Cover conditions. We compare two competing theories potentially explaining the findings. A cognitive theory interprets the observed effect as evidence that the rats were able to understand that the cover blocked informational access to the outcome information, and therefore the changed learning input did not necessarily signify a change of the underlying contingency in the world. An alternative associationist account, renewal theory, might instead explain the relative sparing of extinction in the Cover condition as a consequence of context change. We discuss the merits of both theories as accounts of our data and conclude that the cognitive explanation is in this case preferred.

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