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Stimulus control of habits: Evidence for both stimulus specificity and devaluation insensitivity in a dual-response task

Karly M. Turner & Bernard W. Balleine

Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior

December 2023


Goal-directed and habitual actions are clearly defined by their associative relations. Whereas goal-directed control can be confirmed via tests of outcome devaluation and contingency-degradation sensitivity, a comparable criterion for positively detecting habits has not been established. To confirm habitual responding, a test of control by the stimulus–response association is required while also ruling out goal-directed control. Here we describe an approach to developing such a test in rats using two discriminative stimuli that set the occasion for two different responses that then earn the same outcome. Performance was insensitive to outcome devaluation and showed stimulus–response specificity, indicative of stimulus-controlled behavior. The reliance of stimulus–response associations was further supported by a lack of sensitivity during the single extinction test session used here. These results demonstrate that two concurrently trained responses can come under habitual control when they share a common outcome. By reducing the ability of one stimulus to signal its corresponding response–outcome association, we found evidence for goal-directed control that can be dissociated from habits. Overall, these experiments provide evidence that tests assessing specific stimulus–response associations can be used to investigate habits.

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