Time-dependent competition between goal-directed and habitual response preparation

Nat Hum Behav. 2019 Dec;3(12):1252-1262. doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0725-0. Epub 2019 Sep 30.


Habits are commonly conceptualized as learned associations whereby a stimulus triggers an associated response1-3. We propose that habits may be better understood as a process whereby a stimulus triggers only the preparation of a response, without necessarily triggering its initiation. Critically, this would allow a habit to exist without ever being overtly expressed, if the prepared habitual response is replaced by a goal-directed alternative before it can be initiated. Consistent with this hypothesis, we show that limiting the time available for response preparation4,5 can unmask latent habits. Participants practiced a visuomotor association for 4 days, after which the association was remapped. Participants easily learned the new association but habitually expressed the original association when forced to respond rapidly (~300-600 ms). More extensive practice reduced the latency at which habitual responses were prepared, in turn increasing the likelihood of their being expressed. The time-course of habit expression was captured by a computational model in which habitual responses are automatically prepared at short latency but subsequently replaced by goal-directed responses. Our results illustrate robust habit formation in humans and show that practice affects habitual behaviour in two distinct ways: by promoting habit formation and by modulating the likelihood of habit expression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Association Learning*
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Habits*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Practice, Psychological*
  • Psychomotor Performance*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult