Stress diminishes outcome but enhances response representations during instrumental learning

  1. Jacqueline Katharina Meier
  2. Bernhard P Staresina
  3. Lars Schwabe  Is a corresponding author
  1. Universität Hamburg, Germany
  2. University of Birmingham, United Kingdom


Stress may shift behavioural control from a goal-directed system that encodes action-outcome relationships, to a habitual system that learns stimulus-response associations. Although this shift to habits is highly relevant for stress-related psychopathologies, limitations of existing behavioural paradigms hinders research from answering the fundamental question of whether the stress-induced bias to habits is due to reduced outcome processing, or enhanced response processing at the time of stimulus presentation - or both. Here, we used EEG-based multivariate pattern analysis to decode neural outcome representations crucial for goal-directed control, as well as response representations during instrumental learning. We show that stress reduced outcome representations but enhanced response representations. Both were directly associated with a behavioural index of habitual responding. Furthermore, changes in outcome and response representations were uncorrelated, suggesting that these may reflect distinct processes. Our findings indicate that habitual behaviour under stress may be the result of both enhanced stimulus-response processing and diminished outcome processing.

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Data reported in this manuscript are available from the website:

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Jacqueline Katharina Meier

    Department of Cognitive Psychology, Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  2. Bernhard P Staresina

    Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-0558-9745
  3. Lars Schwabe

    Department of Cognitive Psychology, Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-4429-4373


Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SCHW1357/23-1)

  • Lars Schwabe

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: All participants provided informed consent before participation in the experiment. The experiment was performed in line with the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by the ethics committee of the Faculty of Psychology and Human Movement Sciences at the Universität Hamburg (2018_197_Schwabe).

Reviewing Editor

  1. Mimi Liljeholm, University of California, Irvine, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: February 13, 2021
  2. Preprint posted: February 14, 2021 (view preprint)
  3. Accepted: July 15, 2022
  4. Accepted Manuscript published: July 18, 2022 (version 1)
  5. Version of Record published: August 5, 2022 (version 2)


© 2022, Meier et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Jacqueline Katharina Meier
  2. Bernhard P Staresina
  3. Lars Schwabe
Stress diminishes outcome but enhances response representations during instrumental learning
eLife 11:e67517.

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