Stimulus Control of Actions and Habits: A Role for Reinforcer Predictability and Attention in the Development of Habitual Behavior
Goal-directed actions are instrumental behaviors whose performance depends on the organism’s knowledge of the reinforcing outcome’s value. In contrast, habits are instrumental behaviors that are insensitive to the outcome’s current value. Although habits in everyday life are typically controlled by stimuli that occasion them, most research has studied habits using free-operant procedures in which no discrete stimuli are present to occasion the response. We therefore studied habit learning when rats were reinforced for lever pressing on a random-interval 30-s schedule in the presence of a discriminative stimulus (S) but not in its absence. In Experiment 1, devaluing the reinforcer with taste aversion conditioning weakened instrumental responding in a 30-s S after 4, 22, and 66 sessions of instrumental training. Even extensive practice thus produced goal-directed action, not habit. Experiments 2 and 3 contrastingly found habit when the duration of S was increased from 30 s to 8 min. Experiment 4 then found habit with the 30-s S when it always contained a reinforcer; goal-directed action was maintained when reinforcers were earned at the same rate but occurred in only 50% of Ss (as in the previous experiments). The results challenge the view that habits are an inevitable consequence of repeated reinforcement (as in the law of effect) and instead suggest that discriminated habits develop when the reinforcer becomes predictable. Under those conditions, organisms may pay less attention to their behavior, much as they pay less attention to signals associated with predicted reinforcers in Pavlovian conditioning.
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