Contextual control of instrumental actions and habits

J Exp Psychol Anim Learn Cogn. 2015 Jan;41(1):69-80. doi: 10.1037/xan0000045. Epub 2014 Nov 24.


After a relatively small amount of training, instrumental behavior is thought to be an action under the control of the motivational status of its goal or reinforcer. After more extended training, behavior can become habitual and insensitive to changes in reinforcer value. Recently, instrumental responding has been shown to weaken when tested outside of the training context. The present experiments compared the sensitivity of instrumental responding in rats with a context switch after training procedures that might differentially generate actions or habits. In Experiment 1, lever pressing was decremented in a new context after either short, medium, or long periods of training on either random-ratio or yoked random-interval reinforcement schedules. Experiment 2 found that more minimally trained responding was also sensitive to a context switch. Moreover, Experiment 3 showed that when the goal-directed component of responding was removed by devaluing the reinforcer, the residual responding that remained was still sensitive to the change of context. Goal-directed responding, in contrast, transferred across contexts. Experiment 4 then found that after extensive training, a habit that was insensitive to reinforcer devaluation was still decremented by a context switch. Overall, the results suggest that a context switch primarily influences instrumental habit rather than action. In addition, even a response that has received relatively minimal training may have a habit component that is insensitive to reinforcer devaluation but sensitive to the effects of a context switch.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology*
  • Extinction, Psychological
  • Female
  • Food Deprivation
  • Habits*
  • Motivation
  • Rats
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Time Factors