Habitual Behaviors of People with OCD

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a common mental illness, manifests as an obsession with a specific thought or action, leading to repetitive behavior. Most of the patients suffering from this illness are conscious about the senseless and unproductive nature of their repeated actions, but cannot resist doing them. A study was carried out on patients suffering from OCD, illustrating that there is a specific defect in their actual goal-oriented behavior. It is this defect that leads patients with OCD to depend on certain habits and perform repetitive actions, instead of sensible and goal-oriented behaviors.

OCD leads to repetitions of one or more stereotyped behaviors like hand washing, checking, and counting. In most cases, the patients are unable to stop themselves from performing the tasks repeatedly and they suffer from severe anxiety when they resist the actions. Owing to this compulsion of performing tasks that are perceived unnecessary and unproductive, it has been speculated that patients with OCD have a defective goal-oriented action control. While washing hands before a meal is aimed at keeping them clean, repeated washing of clean hands without any sensible reason is more of a compulsive habitual behavior. This study attempted to find out if there is a disruption in the goal-oriented behavior in patients with OCD, which causes over-reliance on particular habits.


  • This study involved 30 healthy volunteers and 21 patients with OCD. All participants were given tasks to test their goal-directed and habit-based behavior.
  • During the actions that they were asked to perform as part of the study, they were faced with a deliberate change of plans.
  • Their adaptability and modification of action in response to the change was assessed using a self-designed slips-of-action test.
  • At the end of the task, all were given a questionnaire that tested their knowledge on the association between a stimulus, response, and outcome.
  • Data/Results/Key findings

    • The results showed that patients with OCD could use feedback in order to modify their response to a stimulus during the training sessions of the tasks.
    • In the questionnaires, it was noted that the patients with OCD had impaired knowledge but were aware of their reliance on habits.
    • This means that the patients were unaware of the goals they were supposed to be working toward, indicating that their goal-directed behavior was impaired.
    • The patients with OCD also slipped in their tasks and resorted to their habitual behavior more often than normal subjects did.

    Next steps/Shortcomings
    The authors of this study admit that the average age of the healthy volunteers was higher than that of patients with OCD. This could have skewed the results. Future studies should be aimed at more uniformly aged populations. The authors also admit that patients with OCD in this study were under antipsychotic and other medications. This could have affected the responses of the patients, and the findings may not be in accordance with those obtained from unmedicated OCD patients.

    As concluded by this study, patients with OCD have no difficulty in modifying their actions according to feedback, but they are unaware of the goals that their actions would lead to. This means that in comparison to healthy patients, they are more prone to slips of action. They give in easily to repetition of habitual behavior triggered by stimuli rather than the desirability of the result. The authors further suggest that “an imbalance between habitual and goal-directed control may underlie the urge to perform compulsive acts” in patients with OCD. They recommend further studies to establish the theory that an imbalance between habits and goal-oriented behavior is responsible for the symptoms and manifestations of OCD.

    For More Information:
    Disruption in the Balance between Goal-Directed Behavior and Habit Learning in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
    Publication Journal: American Journal of Psychiatry, May 2011
    By Claire Gillan; Martina Papmeyer
    From the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, U.K.; University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, U.K.

    *FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.


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