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Can the brain strategically go on automatic pilot? An fMRI study investigating the effect of if-then planning on behavioral flexibility

van Timmeren, Tim and Dzinalija, Nadza and O'Doherty, John P. and de Wit, Sanne (2022) Can the brain strategically go on automatic pilot? An fMRI study investigating the effect of if-then planning on behavioral flexibility. . (Unpublished)

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People often have good intentions but fail to adhere to them. Implementation intentions, a form of strategic planning, can help people to close this intention-behavior gap. Their effectiveness has been proposed to depend on the mental formation of a stimulus-response association between a trigger and target behavior, thereby creating an ‘instant habit’. If implementation intentions do indeed lead to reliance on habitual control, then this may come at the cost of reduced behavioral flexibility. Furthermore, we would expect a shift from recruitment of corticostriatal brain regions implicated in goal-directed control towards habit regions. To test these ideas, we performed a functional MRI study in which participants received instrumental training supported by either implementation or goal intentions, followed by an outcome-revaluation to test reliance on habitual versus goal-directed control. We found that implementation intentions led to increased efficiency during training, as reflected in higher accuracy, faster reaction times, and decreased engagement of the anterior caudate. However, implementation intentions did not reduce behavioral flexibility when goals changed during the test phase, nor did it affect the underlying corticostriatal pathways. Additionally, this study showed that ‘slips of action’ towards devalued outcomes are associated with reduced activity in brain regions implicated in goal-directed control. In conclusion, our behavioral and neuroimaging findings suggest that strategic if-then planning does not lead to a shift from goal-directed towards habitual control.

Item Type:Report or Paper (Discussion Paper)
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription Paper
van Timmeren, Tim0000-0003-0282-8269
O'Doherty, John P.0000-0003-0016-3531
de Wit, Sanne0000-0003-1438-7085
Additional Information:The copyright holder for this preprint is the author/funder, who has granted bioRxiv a license to display the preprint in perpetuity. It is made available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International license. This research was supported by a VIDI grant awarded to Sanne de Wit by the Dutch Research Council (‘Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek’): 016.145.382) and a Van der Gaag Fund awarded to Tim van Timmeren by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences (KNAW). Author Contribution. Tim van Timmeren: Conceptualization; Data curation; Formal Analysis; Investigation; Methodology; Project administration; Visualization; Writing—Original draft; Writing—Review & editing. Nadza Dzinalija: Investigation; Project administration; Writing—Review & editing. John O’Doherty: Conceptualization; Writing—Review & editing. Sanne de Wit: Conceptualization; Funding Acquisition; Resources; Supervision; Writing—Review & editing. Data availability statement. Data to recreate the main behavioral analyses and the full analysis pipeline with output (in JASP) are available at Whole-brain t-maps (without thresholding) of the main fMRI contrasts are available at
Group:Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO)016.145.382
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and SciencesUNSPECIFIED
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20230215-997950000.1
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Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:119299
Deposited By: George Porter
Deposited On:16 Feb 2023 00:17
Last Modified:16 Feb 2023 00:17

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