Dissertation Kaiyang Qin – Revisiting Automatic Goal Pursuit: The Value of Goals in Cue-Based Behavior

Published on November 23, 2023 – The idea that the environment directs human goal-directed behavior appears to be well-accepted by most contemporary researchers and theorists from different research areas. This acceptance is based on different lines of research that consider goals of personal and social importance to be activated or primed by the environment even outside of awareness. Goals such as earning money, helping others, and socializing have been suggested to be activated by the environment. However, the question of whether goal pursuit can occur fully outside of awareness is still a matter of debate. The evidence of the direct control of goal-directed behavior by the environment is plagued by the absence of a clear model, method, and test. In the present thesis, Kaiyang aims to address this important issue. On Friday, September 8, he obtained his doctorate at the Utrecht University.

Following research on the distinction between habit and goal-directed behavior in animal research, Kaiyang draws on a paradigm that can distinguish between these two components of behavior: Pavlovian-to-Instrumental Transfer (PIT). In PIT, instrumental learning (e.g., pressing a key yields food) is separated from Pavlovian learning (e.g., a stimulus predicts food) in two distinct learning phases. As a result, if the stimulus is found to trigger the instrumental behavior in a later test phase, the effect cannot be explained in terms of reinforcement of a stimulus-response association, as the two have never been paired in the learning phase. Instead, the effect has to be caused by Pavlovian instrumental transfer: The stimulus triggers the representation of the associated outcome, which in turn triggers the associated behavior.

In this dissertation, Kaiyang investigated whether and how cue-driven goal-directed processes can occur even for high-level goals through the PIT paradigm. Results indicate that goals with social meaningfulness (e.g., pro-social goals) and stage of behavior (i.e., action initiation and action persistence) can be influenced by such PIT processes. More specifically, a cue predictive of pro-self outcomes facilitates instrumental responses, whereas the specific PIT effect for pro-social outcomes only emerges when participants have the freedom to donate the money. Additionally, cues associated with multi-functional snacks facilitate the corresponding actions, whereas cues associated with single-functional snacks do not. Furthermore, the findings demonstrate that participants responded faster to the high-value cue. However, this effect was only found in action initiation and did not translate into action persistence over time. Overall, this research sheds light on the environmental cues that influence human behavior, highlighting the mediating role of outcome value and providing insights into high-level goal pursuit cued by the environment, at least in action initiation.


Kaiyang Qin,  Revisiting Automatic Goal Pursuit: Exploring the Value of Goals in Cue-Based Behavior

Promotor: prof. dr. Henk Aarts
Copromotores: dr. Ruud Custers and dr. Hans Marien