Model-based learning protects against forming habits

Claire M. Gillan, A. Ross Otto, Elizabeth A. Phelps, Nathaniel D. Daw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

157 Scopus citations


Studies in humans and rodents have suggested that behavior can at times be “goal-directed”—that is, planned, and purposeful—and at times “habitual”—that is, inflexible and automatically evoked by stimuli. This distinction is central to conceptions of pathological compulsion, as in drug abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Evidence for the distinction has primarily come from outcome devaluation studies, in which the sensitivity of a previously learned behavior to motivational change is used to assay the dominance of habits versus goal-directed actions. However, little is known about how habits and goal-directed control arise. Specifically, in the present study we sought to reveal the trial-by-trial dynamics of instrumental learning that would promote, and protect against, developing habits. In two complementary experiments with independent samples, participants completed a sequential decision task that dissociated two computational-learning mechanisms, model-based and model-free. We then tested for habits by devaluing one of the rewards that had reinforced behavior. In each case, we found that individual differences in model-based learning predicted the participants’ subsequent sensitivity to outcome devaluation, suggesting that an associative mechanism underlies a bias toward habit formation in healthy individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)523-536
Number of pages14
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 8 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Devaluation
  • Goal-directed
  • Habit
  • Model-based
  • Model-free
  • Reinforcement learning


Dive into the research topics of 'Model-based learning protects against forming habits'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this