Unexpected food outcomes can return a habit to goal-directed action

Mark E. Bouton, Matthew C. Broomer, Catalina N. Rey, Eric A. Thrailkill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Three experiments examined the return of a habitual instrumental response to the status of goal-directed action. In all experiments, rats received extensive training in which lever pressing was reinforced with food pellets on a random-interval schedule of reinforcement. In Experiment 1, the extensively-trained response was not affected by conditioning a taste aversion to the reinforcer, and was therefore considered a habit. However, if the response had earned a new and unexpected food pellet during the final training session, the response was affected by taste aversion conditioning to the (first) reinforcer, and had thus been converted to a goal-directed action. In Experiment 3, 30 min of prefeeding with an irrelevant food pellet immediately before the test also converted a habit back to action, as judged by the taste-aversion devaluation method. That result was consistent with difficulty in finding evidence of habit with the sensory-specific satiety method after extensive instrumental training (Experiment 2). The results suggest that an instrumental behavior's status as a habit is not permanent, and that a habit can be returned to action status by associating it with a surprising reinforcer (Experiment 1) or by giving the animal an unexpected prefeeding immediately prior to the action/habit test (Experiment 3).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107163
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
StatePublished - Mar 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Goal-directed action
  • Habit
  • Reinforcer devaluation
  • Sensory-specific satiety
  • Taste aversion learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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