A distinct inferential mechanism for delusions in schizophrenia

Seth C. Baker, Anna B. Konova, Nathaniel D. Daw, Guillermo Horga

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Delusions, a core symptom of psychosis, are false beliefs that are rigidly held with strong conviction despite contradictory evidence. Alterations in inferential processes have long been proposed to underlie delusional pathology, but previous attempts to show this have failed to yield compelling evidence for a specific relationship between inferential abnormalities and delusional severity in schizophrenia. Using a novel, incentivized information-sampling task (a modified version of the beads task), alongside well-characterized decision-making tasks, we sought a mechanistic understanding of delusions in a sample of medicated and unmedicated patients with schizophrenia who exhibited a wide range of delusion severity. In this novel task, participants chose whether to draw beads from one of two hidden jars or to guess the identity of the hidden jar, in order to minimize financial loss from a monetary endowment, and concurrently reported their probability estimates for the hidden jar. We found that patients with higher delusion severity exhibited increased information seeking (i.e. increased draws-to-decision behaviour). This increase was highly specific to delusion severity as compared to the severity of other psychotic symptoms, working-memory capacity, and other clinical and socio-demographic characteristics. Delusion-related increases in information seeking were present in unmedicated patients, indicating that they were unlikely due to antipsychotic medication. In addition, after adjusting for delusion severity, patients as a whole exhibited decreased information seeking relative to healthy individuals, a decrease that correlated with lower socioeconomic status. Computational analyses of reported probability estimates further showed that more delusional patients exhibited abnormal belief updating characterized by stronger reliance on prior beliefs formed early in the inferential process, a feature that correlated with increased information seeking in patients. Other decision-making parameters that could have theoretically explained the delusion effects, such as those related to subjective valuation, were uncorrelated with both delusional severity and information seeking among the patients. In turn, we found some preliminary evidence that subjective valuation (rather than belief updating) may explain group differences in information seeking unrelated to delusions. Together, these results suggest that abnormalities in belief updating, characterized by stronger reliance on prior beliefs formed by incorporating information presented earlier in the inferential process, may be a core computational mechanism of delusional ideation in psychosis. Our results thus provide direct empirical support for an inferential mechanism that naturally captures the characteristic rigidity associated with delusional beliefs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1797-1812
Number of pages16
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Clinical Neurology


  • Bayesian inference
  • belief updating
  • computational psychiatry
  • delusions
  • schizophrenia


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