Quantifying individual variation in the propensity to attribute incentive salience to reward cues

PLoS One. 2012;7(6):e38987. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038987. Epub 2012 Jun 22.


If reward-associated cues acquire the properties of incentive stimuli they can come to powerfully control behavior, and potentially promote maladaptive behavior. Pavlovian incentive stimuli are defined as stimuli that have three fundamental properties: they are attractive, they are themselves desired, and they can spur instrumental actions. We have found, however, that there is considerable individual variation in the extent to which animals attribute Pavlovian incentive motivational properties ("incentive salience") to reward cues. The purpose of this paper was to develop criteria for identifying and classifying individuals based on their propensity to attribute incentive salience to reward cues. To do this, we conducted a meta-analysis of a large sample of rats (N = 1,878) subjected to a classic Pavlovian conditioning procedure. We then used the propensity of animals to approach a cue predictive of reward (one index of the extent to which the cue was attributed with incentive salience), to characterize two behavioral phenotypes in this population: animals that approached the cue ("sign-trackers") vs. others that approached the location of reward delivery ("goal-trackers"). This variation in Pavlovian approach behavior predicted other behavioral indices of the propensity to attribute incentive salience to reward cues. Thus, the procedures reported here should be useful for making comparisons across studies and for assessing individual variation in incentive salience attribution in small samples of the population, or even for classifying single animals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive*
  • Conditioning, Psychological*
  • Cues*
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reward*