What is it about?

Ever noticed how you do things on autopilot? For instance - the sight of your office lift automatically leads to you pressing the button for the 8th floor - without having to think. This is called stimulus-response binding and retrieval (SRBR), and it's a fundamental mechanism that drives behaviour. We wanted to see if affective consequences (academic-speak for "emotional" consequences) that result from our responses can affect this process. In five experiments, we used a setup where participants had to respond to words by pressing the left or right key. If they saw the same word again, they tended to repeat their previous response - often faster. But if the word changed, they often messed up/responded much slower. We also gave rewards or penalties after each round. We found that the SRBR effect was robust, meaning it was consistent across all five experiments. However, there was no evidence that affective consequences affected this process, meaning rewards/punishments didn't influence participants' performance. For instance, let's say that you press the button for the 8th floor upon entering your office lift. If you like the button-press tone and it makes you smile, will you be faster/more encouraged to hit the lift button the next time you see it? If instead, you dislike the tone and it makes you frown, would you be slower/discouraged to press the button the next time? The answer makes sense - of course your responses in such automatic situations is unaffected by how you feel about the consequences of these actions. And that's exactly what we found.

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Why is it important?

If it is indeed possible to modulate the strength (i.e. influence the speed and likelihood of executing responses) of SRBR processes (i.e. automatic behaviour) using rewards and punishments, we will have unlocked the most fundamental units of mental processes that underlie instrumental learning. Thus, this research takes us closer to understanding the underpinnings of Instrumental learning, as well as the scope or boundaries of SRBR processes' involvement in habitual actions.


Pursuing this research question - obvious as the results may seem at first glance - is anything but trivial. Why we (struggle to) repeat certain behaviours - like repeating mistakes when playing the same set of chords on a musical instrument, or reach for the salt shaker in its old place after changing its location, is often attributed to these SRBR mechanisms. Given the ubiquitous influence of rewards and punishments on behaviour, it has been exciting to unravel the extent to which both (reinforcement and SRBR) processes play a role in shaping behaviour, and importantly, processes where they are irrelevant.

Juhi Parmar
Friedrich-Schiller-Universitat Jena

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Nothing else matters: Stimulus–response binding and retrieval is independent of affective consequences., Journal of Experimental Psychology Learning Memory and Cognition, September 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/xlm0001288.
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