Recent research has shown that perceptual processing of stimuli previously associated with high-value rewards is automatically prioritized even when rewards are no longer available. It has been hypothesized that such reward-related modulation of stimulus salience is conceptually similar to an “attentional habit.” Recording event-related potentials in humans during a reinforcement learning task, we show strong evidence in favor of this hypothesis. Resistance to outcome devaluation (the defining feature of a habit) was shown by the stimulus-locked P1 component, reflecting activity in the extrastriate visual cortex. Analysis at longer latencies revealed a positive component (corresponding to the P3b, from 550–700 ms) sensitive to outcome devaluation. Therefore, distinct spatiotemporal patterns of brain activity were observed corresponding to habitual and goal-directed processes. These results demonstrate that reinforcement learning engages both attentional habits and goal-directed processes in parallel. Consequences for brain and computational models of reinforcement learning are discussed.
- Event-related potentials