The three principles of action: A Pavlovian-instrumental transfer hypothesis

Emilio Cartoni, Stefano Puglisi-Allegra, Gianluca Baldassarre

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pavlovian conditioned stimuli can influence instrumental responding, an effect called Pavlovian-instrumental transfer (PIT). During the last decade, PIT has been subdivided into two types: specific PIT and general PIT, each having its own neural substrates. Specific PIT happens when a conditioned stimulus (CS) associated with a reward enhances an instrumental response directed to the same reward. Under general PIT, instead, the CS enhances a response directed to a different reward. While important progress has been made into identifying the neural substrates, the function of specific and general PIT and how they interact with instrumental responses are still not clear. In the experimental paradigm that distinguishes specific and general PIT an effect of PIT inhibition has also been observed and is waiting for an explanation. Here we propose an hypothesis that links these three PIT effects (specific PIT, general PIT and PIT inhibition) to three aspects of action evaluation. These three aspects, which we call "principles of action", are: context, efficacy, and utility. In goal-directed behavior, an agent has to evaluate if the context is suitable to accomplish the goal, the efficacy of his action in getting the goal, and the utility of the goal itself: we suggest that each of the three PIT effects is related to one of these aspects of action evaluation. In particular, we link specific PIT with the estimation of efficacy, general PIT with the evaluation of utility, and PIT inhibition with the adequacy of context. We also provide a latent cause Bayesian computational model that exemplifies this hypothesis. This hypothesis and the model provide a new framework and new predictions to advance knowledge about PIT functioning and its role in animal adaptation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number153
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue numberNOV
Publication statusPublished - Nov 19 2013


  • Bayesian network
  • General PIT
  • Goal-directed behavior
  • Latent causes
  • Nucleus accumbens
  • Pavlovian-instrumental transfer
  • Specific PIT

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'The three principles of action: A Pavlovian-instrumental transfer hypothesis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this