Research Topic

On the Nature and Scope of Habits and Model-Free Control

About this Research Topic

One of the oldest and most entrenched ideas in the cognitive sciences is that actions can be “stamped in” by past reinforcement. Once stamped in, an action can be initiated without knowledge of the causal relationship between the action and its outcomes, and without any current desire to obtain its outcomes. Such actions are called habits.

The past ten years have seen a sharp divergence of opinion about the nature of habits and the extent to which habits shape human cognition and behavior. On one end of the spectrum, researchers have developed a sophisticated dual-systems theory in which habits are built and controlled by a dedicated “model-free” system, which is psychologically and neurobiologically distinct from a non-habitual, “model-based” system. Proponents of the model-free/model-based distinction have proposed that many aspects of human performance are under model-free control, including higher-order phenomena such as cooperation and moral cognition. On the other end of the spectrum, researchers have posited that habits, as traditionally defined, do not exist at all. With its roots in William Brewer’s (1974) early review of conditioning research, which concluded that “there is no convincing evidence for operant or classical conditioning in humans,” this emerging view is that reinforcement does not render action independent of motivation and causal knowledge.

The goal of this Research Topics is to bridge the rapidly expanding divide in the literature on habits. Empirical papers, reviews, and opinion pieces will focus on the nature of habits: Do humans develop habits that are unmediated by causal knowledge and unmoderated by motivation? If so, are habits implemented by a psychologically and neurobiologically distinct model-free system? If so, what are the properties of the model-free system? To what extent do habits shape human cognition and behavior? How often, under what conditions, and in what domains do habits contribute to human performance? Authors are encouraged to engage with alternative perspectives with the aim of resolving disagreements and of bringing those disagreements to the attention of the broader field.

N.B. This Research Topic was co-developed with David Melnikoff - a junior Topic Editor managing this article collection but not involved in editing manuscripts submitted to this Research Topic.


Keywords: Habits, Dual-Process, Model-Free, Model-Based, Reinforcement Learning


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

One of the oldest and most entrenched ideas in the cognitive sciences is that actions can be “stamped in” by past reinforcement. Once stamped in, an action can be initiated without knowledge of the causal relationship between the action and its outcomes, and without any current desire to obtain its outcomes. Such actions are called habits.

The past ten years have seen a sharp divergence of opinion about the nature of habits and the extent to which habits shape human cognition and behavior. On one end of the spectrum, researchers have developed a sophisticated dual-systems theory in which habits are built and controlled by a dedicated “model-free” system, which is psychologically and neurobiologically distinct from a non-habitual, “model-based” system. Proponents of the model-free/model-based distinction have proposed that many aspects of human performance are under model-free control, including higher-order phenomena such as cooperation and moral cognition. On the other end of the spectrum, researchers have posited that habits, as traditionally defined, do not exist at all. With its roots in William Brewer’s (1974) early review of conditioning research, which concluded that “there is no convincing evidence for operant or classical conditioning in humans,” this emerging view is that reinforcement does not render action independent of motivation and causal knowledge.

The goal of this Research Topics is to bridge the rapidly expanding divide in the literature on habits. Empirical papers, reviews, and opinion pieces will focus on the nature of habits: Do humans develop habits that are unmediated by causal knowledge and unmoderated by motivation? If so, are habits implemented by a psychologically and neurobiologically distinct model-free system? If so, what are the properties of the model-free system? To what extent do habits shape human cognition and behavior? How often, under what conditions, and in what domains do habits contribute to human performance? Authors are encouraged to engage with alternative perspectives with the aim of resolving disagreements and of bringing those disagreements to the attention of the broader field.

N.B. This Research Topic was co-developed with David Melnikoff - a junior Topic Editor managing this article collection but not involved in editing manuscripts submitted to this Research Topic.


Keywords: Habits, Dual-Process, Model-Free, Model-Based, Reinforcement Learning


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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16 March 2019 Manuscript

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Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

16 March 2019 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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