Instrumental action can be controlled by two anatomically and functionally distinct systems: a goal-directed system that learns action-outcome associations and a habit system that learns stimulus-response associations without any link to the incentive value of the outcome. Recent evidence indicates that stress before learning modulates these two systems in favor of habitual control. Here, we examined the impact of a stress exposure after learning on instrumental performance. Participants learned to choose two instrumental actions that were associated with the delivery of different food rewards. After learning, one of these food rewards was devalued as participants were saturated with that food. Before being re-exposed to the instrumental actions in extinction, participants were subjected to the socially evaluated cold pressor test or a control procedure. Controls but not stressed participants reduced responding to the action associated with the devalued outcome. That is, acute stress before extinction testing abolished sensitivity of performance to outcome devaluation. Cortisol responses to stress correlated significantly with habitual performance. These findings show that stress induced by the socially evaluated cold pressor test can make behavior habitual without affecting processes involved in learning.
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