New article: the brain on automatic pilot

Strategic if-then planning, also known as ‘implementation intentions’ have been proposed to support behavior change by accelerating the shift from goal-directed control towards reliance on efficient habits. It has even been argued that these plans lead to ‘instant habits’.  To investigate this notion, we studied brain activity during a computerized task that assessed instrumental learning and the balance between goal-directed towards habitual control.

During the learning phase of the task, we found evidence that implementation intentions initially decreased activity in the caudate, which may reflect stronger reliance on efficient S-R associations from the outset of training, as this striatal brain region has previously been implicated in goal-directed control. In contrast, when the flexibility of behavior was assessed in the test phase, we no longer found any effect on brain activity nor on behavioral performance.

Therefore, this study provides partial support for the instant habit hypothesis. It suggests that implementation intentions share with learned habits the beneficial effect on efficiency, but not the detrimental effect of rigidity.

Reference: Van Timmeren, T., O’Doherty, J.P., Dzinalija, N., & de Wit, S. (2023). Can the Brain Strategically Go on Automatic Pilot? A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study Investigating the Effect of If–Then Planning on Behavioral Flexibility, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1-19