Shifting the balance between goals and habits: Five failures in experimental habit induction

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2018 Jul;147(7):1043-1065. doi: 10.1037/xge0000402.


Habits are repetitive behaviors that become ingrained with practice, routine, and repetition. The more we repeat an action, the stronger our habits become. Behavioral and clinical neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in this topic because habits may contribute to aspects of maladaptive human behavior, such as compulsive behavior in psychiatry. Numerous studies have demonstrated that habits can be induced in otherwise healthy rats by simply overtraining stimulus-response behaviors. However, despite growing interest in this topic and its application to psychiatry, a similar body of work in humans is absent. Only a single study has been published in humans that shows the effect of extensive training on habit expression. Here, we report five failed attempts to demonstrate that overtraining instrumental behavior leads to the development of inflexible habits in humans, using variants of four previously published outcome devaluation paradigms. Extensive training did not lead to greater habits in two versions of an avoidance learning task, in an appetitive slips-of-action task, or in two independent attempts to replicate the original demonstration. The finding that these outcome devaluation procedures may be insensitive to duration of stimulus-response training in humans has implications for prior work in psychiatric populations. Specifically, it converges with the suggestion that the failures in outcome devaluation in compulsive individuals reflect dysfunction in goal-directed control, rather than overactive habit learning. We discuss why habits are difficult to experimentally induce in healthy humans, and the implications of this for future research in healthy and disordered populations. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning*
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Habits*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Young Adult