Theories of reward learning in neuroscience have focused on two families of algorithms thought to capture deliberative versus habitual choice. ‘Model-based’ algorithms compute the value of candidate actions from scratch, whereas ‘model-free’ algorithms make choice more efficient but less flexible by storing pre-computed action values. We examine an intermediate algorithmic family, the successor representation, which balances flexibility and efficiency by storing partially computed action values: predictions about future events. These pre-computation strategies differ in how they update their choices following changes in a task. The successor representation’s reliance on stored predictions about future states predicts a unique signature of insensitivity to changes in the task’s sequence of events, but flexible adjustment following changes to rewards. We provide evidence for such differential sensitivity in two behavioural studies with humans. These results suggest that the successor representation is a computational substrate for semi-flexible choice in humans, introducing a subtler, more cognitive notion of habit.

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This project was made possible by grant support through the National Institutes of Health Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience award 1R01MH109177, the National Institutes of Health under R. L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award 1F31MH110111-01 and the John Templeton Foundation. The authors acknowledge K. Norman and R. Otto for helpful conversations, and A. Rich and S. Tubridy for assistance with psiTurk. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies. No funders had any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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Author notes

  1. I. Momennejad and E. M. Russek are contributed equally to the work.


  1. Department of Psychology, Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • I. Momennejad
    •  & N. D. Daw
  2. Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, NY, USA

    • E. M. Russek
  3. Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA

    • J. H. Cheong
  4. DeepMind and Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, London, UK

    • M. M. Botvinick
  5. Department of Psychology, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • S. J. Gershman


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I.M., M.M.B. and S.J.G. designed experiment 1. J.H.C. conducted and collected the data. E.M.R. and N.D.D. designed and conducted experiment 2. I.M., E.M.R. and S.J.G. analysed the data and ran model simulations. I.M., E.M.R., M.M.B., N.D.D. and S.J.G. wrote the paper.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to I. Momennejad.

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