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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Dec;143(6):2316-29. doi: 10.1037/xge0000022. Epub 2014 Oct 13.

Stimulus devaluation induced by stopping action.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego.
Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and Computation and Neural Systems Program, California Institute of Technology.


Impulsive behavior in humans partly relates to inappropriate overvaluation of reward-associated stimuli. Hence, it is desirable to develop methods of behavioral modification that can reduce stimulus value. Here, we tested whether one kind of behavioral modification--the rapid stopping of actions in the face of reward-associated stimuli--could lead to subsequent devaluation of those stimuli. We developed a novel paradigm with three consecutive phases: implicit reward learning, a stop-signal task, and an auction procedure. In the learning phase, we associated abstract shapes with different levels of reward. In the stop-signal phase, we paired half those shapes with occasional stop-signals, requiring the rapid stopping of an initiated motor response, while the other half of shapes was not paired with stop signals. In the auction phase, we assessed the subjective value of each shape via willingness-to-pay. In 2 experiments, we found that participants bid less for shapes that were paired with stop-signals compared to shapes that were not. This suggests that the requirement to try to rapidly stop a response decrements stimulus value. Two follow-on control experiments suggested that the result was specifically due to stopping action rather than aversiveness, effort, conflict, or salience associated with stop signals. This study makes a theoretical link between research on inhibitory control and value. It also provides a novel behavioral paradigm with carefully operationalized learning, treatment, and valuation phases. This framework lends itself to both behavioral modification procedures in clinical disorders and research on the neural underpinnings of stimulus devaluation.

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