Defining the place of habit in substance use disorders

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Dec 20;87(Pt A):22-32. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2017.06.029. Epub 2017 Jun 27.


It has long been suggested that alcohol or substance use disorders could emerge from the progressive development and dominance of drug habits. Like habits, drug-related behaviors are often triggered by drug-associated cues. Like habits, addictive behaviors are strong, rigid and "hard to break". Like habits, these behaviors are insensitive to their outcome and persist despite negative consequences. "Pathological habit" thus appears as a good candidate to explain the transition to compulsive drug use. However, drug use could also be considered as a goal-directed choice, driven by the expectation of drug outcomes. For example, drug addicts may engage in drug-seeking behaviors because they view the drug as more valuable than available alternatives. Substance use disorders therefore may not be all about habit, nor fully intentional, and could be considered as resulting from an imbalance between goal-directed and habitual control. The main objective of this review is to disentangle the relative contribution of habit formation and impairment of goal-directed behavior in this unbalanced control of addictive behaviors. Although deficits in goal-directed behavior have been demonstrated in alcohol and substance use disorders, reliable demonstration of abnormal habit formation has been curtailed by the paucity of paradigms designed to assess habit as a positive result. Refining our animal and human model of habit is therefore required to precisely define the place of habit in substance use disorders and develop appropriate and adapted neurobehavioral treatments.

Keywords: Addiction; Drugs; Goal-directed; Habit; Learning; Stimulus-response.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology*
  • Goals
  • Habits*
  • Humans
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*