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Published July 18, 2012 | Published
Journal Article Open

Dissociable Brain Systems Mediate Vicarious Learning of Stimulus–Response and Action–Outcome Contingencies


Two distinct strategies have been suggested to support action selection in humans and other animals on the basis of experiential learning: a goal-directed strategy that generates decisions based on the value and causal antecedents of action outcomes, and a habitual strategy that relies on the automatic elicitation of actions by environmental stimuli. In the present study, we investigated whether a similar dichotomy exists for actions that are acquired vicariously, through observation of other individuals rather than through direct experience, and assessed whether these strategies are mediated by distinct brain regions. We scanned participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they performed an observational learning task designed to encourage either goal-directed encoding of the consequences of observed actions, or a mapping of observed actions to conditional discriminative cues. Activity in different parts of the action observation network discriminated between the two conditions during observational learning and correlated with the degree of insensitivity to outcome devaluation in subsequent performance. Our findings suggest that, in striking parallel to experiential learning, neural systems mediating the observational acquisition of actions may be dissociated into distinct components: a goal-directed, outcome-sensitive component and a less flexible stimulus–response component.

Additional Information

© 2012 the authors. Received February 5, 2012. Revision received April 26, 2012. Accepted May 30, 2012. This work was supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust and by an NIH grant (DA033077-01) to J.P.O. We thank Sean B. Ostlund for his helpful comments on the manuscript. Author contributions: M.L. and J.P.O. designed research; M.L. and C.J.M. performed research; M.L. analyzed data; M.L. and J.P.O. wrote the paper.

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August 19, 2023
October 18, 2023