Champ versus Chump: Viewing an Opponent’s Face Engages Attention but Not Reward Systems




Redden, Ralph S.
Gagliardi, Greg A.
Williams, Chad C.
Hassall, Cameron D.
Krigolson, Olave E.

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When we play competitive games, the opponents that we face act as predictors of the outcome of the game. For instance, if you are an average chess player and you face a Grandmaster, you anticipate a loss. Framed in a reinforcement learning perspective, our opponents can be thought of as predictors of rewards and punishments. The present study investigates whether facing an opponent would be processed as a reward or punishment depending on the level of difficulty the opponent poses. Participants played Rock, Paper, Scissors against three computer opponents while electroencephalographic (EEG) data was recorded. In a key manipulation, one opponent (HARD) was programmed to win most often, another (EASY) was made to lose most often, and the third (AVERAGE) had equiprobable outcomes of wins, losses, and ties. Through practice, participants learned to anticipate the relative challenge of a game based on the opponent they were facing that round. An analysis of our EEG data revealed that winning outcomes elicited a reward positivity relative to losing outcomes. Interestingly, our analysis of the predictive cues (i.e., the opponents’ faces) demonstrated that attentional engagement (P3a) was contextually sensitive to anticipated game difficulty. As such, our results for the predictive cue are contrary to what one might expect for a reinforcement model associated with predicted reward, but rather demonstrate that the neural response to the predictive cue was encoding the level of engagement with the opponent as opposed to value relative to the anticipated outcome.



rock-paper-scissors, reward processing, attention control, event-related potentials, opponent processing


Redden, R. S., Gagliardi, G. A., Williams, C. C., Hassall, C. D., & Krigolson, O. E. (2021). Champ versus Chump: Viewing an Opponent’s Face Engages Attention but Not Reward Systems. Games, 12(3), 1-12.