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There Are No Habitual Actions

Only processes are habitual.


The term ‘habitual’ is used for at least two different things.

One use is for ‘things someone usually does’. This use is common enough in everyday situations to be in a dictionary:

‘A habitual action, state, or way of behaving is one that someone usually does or has, especially one that is considered to be typical or characteristic of them.’ (

In this course, we never use ‘habitual’ in this first way.

The other use of ‘habitual’ applies to processes, not actions. It comes from comes from dual-process theory of instrumental action. This is the notion of habitual process in the glossary.

In this course, we always use ‘habitual’ in this second way.

It is hard to related the notion of a habitual process to the idea that an action is ‘habitual’ because all actions likely involve the influence of multiple types of process (see The Minor Puzzle about Habitual Processes). The best sense we can make of the phrase ‘habitual action’ would be to say that it refers to particular actions which were dominated by habitual processes.

Philosophers and scientists use the term ‘habitual’ in several different ways (Du, Krakauer, & Haith, 2022, p. 374). But as several researchers have argued at length (Du et al., 2022; Gardner, 2015), if our focus is scientific discoveries about action we should think of processes responsible for actions as habitual or not rather than the actions themselves.[1] One reason for this is simply that even a paradigm small-scale case of so-called ‘habitual action’ likely involve multiple processes some but not all of which are habitual.

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dual-process theory of instrumental action : Instrumental action ‘is controlled by two dissociable processes: a goal-directed and an habitual process’ (Dickinson, 2016, p. 177). (See instrumental action.)
habitual process : A process underpinning some instrumental actions which obeys Thorndyke’s Law of Effect: ‘The presenta­tion of an effective [=rewarding] outcome following an action [...] rein­forces a connection between the stimuli present when the action is per­formed and the action itself so that subsequent presentations of these stimuli elicit the [...] action as a response’ (Dickinson, 1994, p. 48). (Interesting complication which you can safely ignore: there is probably much more to say about under what conditions the stimulus–action connection is strengthened; e.g. Thrailkill, Trask, Vidal, Alcalá, & Bouton, 2018.)


Dickinson, A. (1994). Instrumental conditioning. In N. Mackintosh (Ed.), Animal learning and cognition. London: Academic Press.
Dickinson, A. (2016). Instrumental conditioning revisited: Updating dual-process theory. In J. B. Trobalon & V. D. Chamizo (Eds.), Associative learning and cognition (Vol. 51, pp. 177–195). Edicions Universitat Barcelona.
Du, Y., Krakauer, J. W., & Haith, A. M. (2022). The relationship between habits and motor skills in humans. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 26(5), 371–387.
Gardner, B. (2015). A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 277–295.
James, W. (1901). The principles of psychology. London: Macmillan.
Thrailkill, E. A., Trask, S., Vidal, P., Alcalá, J. A., & Bouton, M. E. (2018). Stimulus control of actions and habits: A role for reinforcer predictability and attention in the development of habitual behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 44, 370–384.


  1. ‘We conclude that it is more fruitful to think about habits as a property of the intermediate computations that precede response generation (Figure 5B,C) rather than as a property of the response itself (Figure 5A).’ (Du et al., 2022, p. 380) ↩︎