Abstract

Learned habitual responses to environmental stimuli allow efficient interaction with the environment, freeing cognitive resources for more demanding tasks. However, when the outcome of such actions is no longer a desired goal, established stimulus–response (S-R) associations or habits must be overcome. Among people with substance use disorders (SUDs), difficulty in overcoming habitual responses to stimuli associated with their addiction in favor of new, goal-directed behaviors contributes to relapse. Animal models of habit learning demonstrate that chronic self-administration of drugs of abuse promotes habitual responding beyond the domain of compulsive drug seeking. However, whether a similar propensity toward domain-general habitual responding occurs in humans with SUDs has remained unclear. To address this question, we used a visuomotor S-R learning and relearning task, the Hidden Association between Images Task, which employs abstract visual stimuli and manual responses. This task allows us to measure new S-R association learning and well-learned S-R association execution and includes a response contingency change manipulation to quantify the degree to which responding is habit-based, rather than goal-directed. We find that people with SUDs learn new S-R associations as well as healthy control participants do. Moreover, people with an SUD history slightly outperform controls in S-R execution. In contrast, people with SUDs are specifically impaired in overcoming well-learned S-R associations; those with SUDs make a significantly greater proportion of perseverative errors during well-learned S-R replacement, indicating the more habitual nature of their responses. Thus, with equivalent training and practice, people with SUDs appear to show enhanced domain-general habit formation.

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