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Perspect Psychol Sci. 2014 Sep;9(5):497-524.

Banishing the Control Homunculi in Studies of Action Control and Behavior Change.

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School of Psychology, Exeter University, Exeter, United Kingdom.
School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom.


For centuries, human self-control has fascinated scientists and nonscientists alike. Current theories often attribute it to an executive control system. But even though executive control receives a great deal of attention across disciplines, most aspects of it are still poorly understood. Many theories rely on an ill-defined set of "homunculi" doing jobs like "response inhibition" or "updating" without explaining how they do so. Furthermore, it is not always appreciated that control takes place across different timescales. These two issues hamper major advances. Here we focus on the mechanistic basis for the executive control of actions. We propose that at the most basic level, action control depends on three cognitive processes: signal detection, action selection, and action execution. These processes are modulated via error-correction or outcome-evaluation mechanisms, preparation, and task rules maintained in working and long-term memory. We also consider how executive control of actions becomes automatized with practice and how people develop a control network. Finally, we discuss how the application of this unified framework in clinical domains can increase our understanding of control deficits and provide a theoretical basis for the development of novel behavioral change interventions.


action control; behavior change; executive control; learning

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