Cognitive inflexibility and repetitive habitual actions are associated with problematic use of the internet

Kavya Raj, Rebecca Segrave, Antonio Verdéjo-Garcia, Murat Yücel

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Classification of Problematic Use of the Internet (PUI) remains contentious, and differing conceptualisations define PUI as a behavioural addiction, an impulse-control disorder, or an artefact of in-person social difficulties. However, these divergent conceptualisations share two commonalities: an emphasis on loss of inhibitory control (a central component of impulsivity) over internet-related urges, and repetitive habitual patterns of internet use that persist despite maladaptive outcomes (a central component of compulsivity). To date, no study has concurrently investigated impulsive and compulsive mechanisms as possible cognitive drivers of PUI. To address this gap, the study aimed to predict PUI through assessment of multiple dimensions of impulsivity and compulsivity: response inhibition, risky decision-making, reward valuation, reward-related attentional bias, cognitive flexibility, and habit formation. Ninety-one Australian university students (52 problematic internet users and 38 healthy controls) were sampled via online group-testing. Using logistic regression analysis, the model was able to predict individuals with PUI with 83.3% accuracy. Significant predictors within the model were two dimensions of compulsivity: cognitive flexibility and habitual actions, with each unit increase (i.e., towards inflexibility and perseverance) predicting an increase in likelihood of PUI of 134% and 17% respectively. The results suggest that individuals with PUI may have difficulty inhibiting previously rewarding learned responses when these reward contingencies are reversed, as well as an excessive tendency towards habit formation. Dysfunction in action-outcome and stimulus-response learning mechanisms may be mechanistic drivers of PUI, signifying possible transdiagnostic cognitive similarities between PUI and addictive disorders.
Original languageEnglish
Article number107600
Number of pages7
JournalAddictive Behaviors
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2023

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