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A comparison of ‘pruning’ during multi-step planning in depressed and healthy individuals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 March 2021

Paul Faulkner
Department of Psychology, University of Roehampton, London, UK
Quentin J. M. Huys
Division of Psychiatry, University College London, London, UK Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, University College London, London, UK
Daniel Renz
Translational Neuromodeling Unit, Institute for Biomedical Engineering, University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Neir Eshel
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, USA
Stephen Pilling
Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, London, UK
Peter Dayan
Department of Computational Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen, Germany
Jonathan P. Roiser
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London, UK



Real-life decisions are often complex because they involve making sequential choices that constrain future options. We have previously shown that to render such multi-step decisions manageable, people ‘prune’ (i.e. selectively disregard) branches of decision trees that contain negative outcomes. We have theorized that sub-optimal pruning contributes to depression by promoting an oversampling of branches that result in unsavoury outcomes, which results in a negatively-biased valuation of the world. However, no study has tested this theory in depressed individuals.


Thirty unmedicated depressed and 31 healthy participants were administered a sequential reinforcement-based decision-making task to determine pruning behaviours, and completed measures of depression and anxiety. Computational, Bayesian and frequentist analyses examined group differences in task performance and relationships between pruning and depressive symptoms.


Consistent with prior findings, participants robustly pruned branches of decision trees that began with large losses, regardless of the potential utility of those branches. However, there was no group difference in pruning behaviours. Further, there was no relationship between pruning and levels of depression/anxiety.


We found no evidence that sub-optimal pruning is evident in depression. Future research could determine whether maladaptive pruning behaviours are observable in specific sub-groups of depressed patients (e.g. in treatment-resistant individuals), or whether misuse of other heuristics may contribute to depression.

Original Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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