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.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Social Psychology
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Behavioral Neuroscience