Does stress consistently favor habits over goal-directed behaviors? Data from two preregistered exact replication studies

Tom Smeets*, Stephanie M. Ashton, Simone J. A. A. Roelands, Conny W. E. M. Quaedflieg

*Corresponding author for this work

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Instrumental learning is controlled by two distinct parallel systems: goal-directed (action-outcome) and habitual (stimulus-response) processes. Seminal research by Schwabe and Wolf (2009, 2010) has demonstrated that stress renders behavior more habitual by decreasing goal-directed control. More recent studies yielded equivocal evidence for a stress-induced shift towards habitual responding, yet these studies used different paradigms to evaluate instrumental learning or used different stressors. Here, we performed exact replications of the original studies by exposing participants to an acute stressor either before (cf. Schwabe and Wolf, 2009) or directly after (cf. Schwabe and Wolf, 2010) an instrumental learning phase in which they had learned that distinct actions led to distinct, rewarding food outcomes (i.e., instrumental learning). Then, following an outcome devaluation phase in which one of the food outcomes was consumed until participants were satiated, action-outcome associations were tested in extinction. Despite successful instrumental learning and outcome devaluation and increased subjective and physiological stress levels following stress exposure, the stress and no-stress groups in both replication studies responded indifferently to valued and devalued outcomes. That is, non-stressed participants failed to demonstrate goal-directed behavioral control, thereby rendering the critical test of a shift from goal-directed to habitual control in the stress group inapt. Several reasons for these replication failures are discussed, including the rather indiscriminate devaluation of outcomes that may have contributed to indifferent responding during extinction, which emphasize the need to further our understanding of the boundary conditions in research aimed at demonstrating a stress-induced shift towards habitual control.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100528
Number of pages12
JournalNeurobiology of Stress
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023

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