Time-dependent competition between goal-directed and habitual response preparation


Habits are commonly conceptualized as learned associations whereby a stimulus triggers an associated response1,2,3. We propose that habits may be better understood as a process whereby a stimulus triggers only the preparation of a response, without necessarily triggering its initiation. Critically, this would allow a habit to exist without ever being overtly expressed, if the prepared habitual response is replaced by a goal-directed alternative before it can be initiated. Consistent with this hypothesis, we show that limiting the time available for response preparation4,5 can unmask latent habits. Participants practiced a visuomotor association for 4 days, after which the association was remapped. Participants easily learned the new association but habitually expressed the original association when forced to respond rapidly (~300–600 ms). More extensive practice reduced the latency at which habitual responses were prepared, in turn increasing the likelihood of their being expressed. The time-course of habit expression was captured by a computational model in which habitual responses are automatically prepared at short latency but subsequently replaced by goal-directed responses. Our results illustrate robust habit formation in humans and show that practice affects habitual behaviour in two distinct ways: by promoting habit formation and by modulating the likelihood of habit expression.

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Fig. 1: Task and training schedule for Experiment 1.
Fig. 2: Switch manipulation, retraining and forced-response task results.
Fig. 3: Computational model of response preparation.
Fig. 4: Results for Experiment 2 (20 days/20,000 trials of practice).

Data availability

Data are available at https://osf.io/3fjez.

Code availability

Analysis code are available at https://osf.io/3fjez.


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We thank E. Lesage and Y. Du for helpful comments on the manuscript and M. Adputra for producing the stimuli. This project was supported by an NSF grant (no. 1358756). This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 702784 (R.M.H.). The funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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R.M.H. and A.M.H. conceived and designed the experiments. R.M.H. collected the data. R.M.H. and A.M.H. analysed the data. R.M.H. and A.M.H. wrote the manuscript. R.M.H., A.D.F., J.W.K. and A.M.H. reviewed and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Robert M. Hardwick.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–7 and Supplementary Reference.

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Hardwick, R.M., Forrence, A.D., Krakauer, J.W. et al. Time-dependent competition between goal-directed and habitual response preparation. Nat Hum Behav 3, 1252–1262 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0725-0

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