From skinner box to daily life: Sign-tracker phenotype co-segregates with impulsivity, compulsivity, and addiction tendencies in humans

Martino Schettino, Ilenia Ceccarelli, Mika Tarvainen, Marialuisa Martelli, Cristina Orsini, Cristina Ottaviani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pavlovian conditioning holds the potential to incentivize environmental cues, leading to approach behavior toward them, even outside our awareness. Animal models suggest that this is particularly true for the so-called sign-tracker (ST) phenotype, which is considered to reflect a predisposition toward developing addiction-related behaviours. Despite its potential clinical relevance, few studies have demonstrated the translational validity of this model, likely due to difficulties in studying Pavlovian processes in humans. To fill this gap, we combined an ecological momentary assessment with ambulatory peripheral autonomic monitoring to test the hypothesis that traits associated with ST in preclinical studies would be associated with attribution of high incentive salience to reward-related cues. Several times for 2 days, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of several preselected ecological rewards (e.g., coffee) and the preceding cues (the smell of coffee) while their electrocardiogram was recorded. While no absolute difference in subjective and physiological measures of motivational approach to daily cues compared with rewards emerged, individuals with high levels of impulsivity, obsessive-compulsive, and addiction-prone behaviors rated as more attractive and showed a greater increase in sympathetic arousal to cues versus rewards. The opposite pattern emerged for those with low levels in those dispositional traits, who responded more (both subjectively and physiologically) to rewards compared with their preceding cues. This study represents an attempt to answer the call to parcel complex behaviors into smaller constructs, improving the early detection of those who are vulnerable to develop psychopathological disorders, particularly in the domain of impulse control such as addiction.

Original languageEnglish
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2022


  • Addiction
  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Ecological momentary assessment
  • Environmental cues
  • Impulsivity
  • Obsessive-compulsive

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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