Why are some individuals more susceptible to the formation of inflexible habits than others? In the present study, we used diffusion tensor imaging to demonstrate that brain connectivity predicts individual differences in relative goal-directed and habitual behavioral control in humans. Specifically, vulnerability to habitual "slips of action" toward no-longer-rewarding outcomes was predicted by estimated white matter tract strength in the premotor cortex seeded from the posterior putamen (as well as by gray matter density in the posterior putamen as determined with voxel-based morphometry). In contrast, flexible goal-directed action was predicted by estimated tract strength in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex seeded from the caudate. These findings suggest that integrity of dissociable corticostriatal pathways underlies individual differences in action control in the healthy population, which may ultimately mediate vulnerability to impulse control disorders.
Abstract“Slips of action” occur in everyday life when we momentarily lose sight of a goal (for example, when in a rush or distracted). Associative models propose that these habitual responses can be activated via a direct stimulus-response (S-R) mechanism, regardless of the current hedonic value of the outcome. The slips-of-action task (SOAT) has been extensively used in both healthy and pathological populations to measure habit tendencies, the likelihood of making erroneous responses for devalued outcomes. Inspection of behavioral performance does not reveal, however, whether the impairments were due to impaired goal-directed control or aberrantly strong habit formation. In the current study, we used functional MRI while human participants performed both the instrumental training and SOAT test phases, to elucidate the relative contributions of these mechanisms to performance on the SOAT. On trials in which conflict arises between competing goal-directed and habitual responses, we observed increased activation across areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, paracingulate gyrus, lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), insula, and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Responding for devalued outcomes was related to increased activation in the premotor cortex and cerebellum, implicating these regions in habitual responding. Increased activation in the caudate, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), and frontal pole during training was associated with better performance during the test phase, indicative of goal-directed action control. These results endorse interpretation of the SOAT in terms of competing goal-directed and habitual mechanisms and highlight that cognitive control processes present an additional bottleneck for successful performance on this task.
Adolescents and children are the targets of much food advertising, the majority of which is for unhealthy snacks. Although the effects of advertising on food preferences and consummatory behavior are well documented, our understanding of the underlying mechanisms is still limited. The present study investigates an associative (ideomotor) mechanism by which exposure to rewarding (snack) outcomes may activate behavior that previously resulted in these rewards. Specifically, we used a computerized task to investigate whether exposing adolescents to food pictures directly, or to Pavlovian cues predictive of those food pictures, would bias their subsequent responses towards the presented/signaled food. Furthermore, we assessed whether this effect was particularly pronounced with palatable, high-calorie snacks (crisps and chocolate) relative to low-calorie snacks (tomatoes and cucumber). In two experiments, adolescents learnt that certain key presses would yield particular food pictures - some high calorie and others low calorie - before learning Pavlovian associations between cues (cartoon monsters) and these same food pictures. Subsequently, in a response-priming test, we examined the extent to which the food pictures and Pavlovian cues spontaneously primed the previously associated response. The results show that we replicated, in adolescents, previous demonstrations of ideomotor response priming in adults: food pictures biased responding towards the response that previously yielded them, and this effect transferred to the Pavlovian cues. Furthermore, the priming effect was significantly stronger for high-calorie rewards than for low-calorie. These findings indicate that the ideomotor mechanism plays an important role in the detrimental effect of our obesogenic environment, with its plethora of unhealthy food reminders, on adolescents' food-related choices.
Human behavior can be paradoxical, in that actions can be initiated that are seemingly incongruent with an individual’s explicit desires. This is most commonly observed in drug addiction, where maladaptive behavior (i.e., drug seeking) appears to be compulsive, continuing at great personal cost. Approach biases toward addictive substances have been correlated with actual drug-use in a number of studies, suggesting that this measure can, in some cases, index everyday maladaptive tendencies. At present it is unclear whether this bias to drug cues is a Pavlovian conditioned approach response, a habitual response, the result of a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer process, or a goal-directed action in the sense that expectancy of the rewarding effects of drugs controls approach. We consider this question by combining the theoretical framework of associative learning with the available evidence from approach bias research. Although research investigating the relative contributions of these mechanisms to the approach bias is to date relatively limited, we review existing studies and also outline avenues for future research.
These results provide support for models that view addictive behaviours as resulting from interaction and competition between automatic and more reflective processes. That is, the mechanisms that ultimately drive addictive behaviour may differ between people low or high in cognitive control. This has important implications for understanding the development and maintenance of substance use disorders and potentially their treatment and prevention.
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