Substance dependence is characterized by compulsive drug-taking despite negative consequences. Animal research suggests an underlying imbalance between goal-directed and habitual action control with chronic drug use. However, this imbalance, and its associated neurophysiological mechanisms, has not yet been experimentally investigated in human drug abusers. The aim of the present study therefore was to assess the balance between goal-directed and habit-based learning and its neural correlates in abstinent alcohol-dependent (AD) patients. A total of 31 AD patients and 19 age, gender and education matched healthy controls (HC) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during completion of an instrumental learning task designed to study the balance between goal-directed and habit learning. Task performance and task-related blood oxygen level-dependent activations in the brain were compared between AD patients and healthy matched controls. Findings were additionally associated with duration and severity of alcohol dependence. The results of this study provide evidence for an overreliance on stimulusresponse habit learning in AD compared with HC, which was accompanied by decreased engagement of brain areas implicated in goal-directed action (ventromedial prefrontal cortex and anterior putamen) and increased recruitment of brain areas implicated in habit learning (posterior putamen) in AD patients. In conclusion, this is the first human study to provide experimental evidence for a disturbed balance between goal-directed and habitual control by use of an instrumental learning task, and to directly implicate cortical dysfunction to overreliance on inflexible habits in AD patients. © 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited All rights reserved.