Learn to appreciate cognitive effort


Many exceptional human skills, such as reading, mastering a musical instrument, or programming complex software, require thousands of hours of practice and constant cognitive effort. Mainstream scientific theories hold that cognitive effort is experienced as unpleasant and that people try to avoid it as much as possible.

However, there are many situations in daily life in which people seem to exert themselves voluntarily, even when there is no obvious external reward. For example, many people enjoy solving Sudoku puzzles, students are often driven by difficult intellectual tasks, and amateur pianists can spend hours striving for perfection without any external reward. Recently, some scientists have questioned critically whether cognitive effort is always aversive, arguing instead that challenging cognitive activities can, under certain circumstances, be experienced as rewarding and valuable. However, until now, little research has focused on studying this phenomenon.

In an ongoing project of the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 940 “Volition and Cognitive Control”, researchers from the University of Vienna and the Technische Universität Dresden tried to answer this question. Led by Veronika Job, Thomas Goschke and Franziska Korb, the team studied under controlled conditions whether people rewarded for their effort in a cognitive task were willing to put in more effort in a novel tracking task than people in a control group – even though they were aware that they would receive no further rewards in the process.

Willingness to exert effort increases even after a short period of training

In the first experiment with 121 participants, first authors Georgia Clay and Christopher Mlynski used cardiovascular (heart activity) measures to determine how well people practiced cognitive tasks of different challenging levels during a phase. training. In a group, reward was directly determined by effort: if a person put in more effort on the difficult levels of the task, they received a higher reward than on the easier levels where they put in little effort. In the control group, the reward was randomly assigned and was independent of the effort someone put in. The total reward offered was held constant across groups, with only the contingency between effort and reward being manipulated. Afterwards, all the subjects worked on mathematical tasks where they could choose the level of difficulty of the tasks on which they wanted to work. The conclusion: “The subjects who had previously been rewarded for their efforts then chose more difficult tasks than the subjects in the control group, even though they were aware that they would no longer receive an external reward”, explains Prof. Veronika Job from the Faculty of Psychology. at the University of Vienna.

Other experiments confirm the results

To determine if the effects of an effort-dependent reward can be replicated and generalized, five more experiments were conducted online with a total of 1,457 participants. Here, people in the experimental group received a higher reward for difficult tasks than for easy tasks, regardless of the quality of their resolution. Thus, the reward again depended on the cognitive effort required and not on the performance of the participants. Effort-dependent reward was again found to lead people to prefer more difficult tasks, which required more cognitive effort, in a later testing phase in which they were again free to choose. the difficulty of the task.

These findings challenge the widely held view in current cognitive psychology and neuroscience theories that exertion is always experienced as unpleasant and costly. “Thus, the assumption that people want to take the path of least resistance may not be an inherent characteristic of human motivation. The tendency to avoid difficult tasks may instead be the result of stories of learning that differ according to the reward model: was it mainly performance or effort that was rewarded?” concludes Thomas Goschke, professor of general psychology at TU Dresden and spokesperson for SFB 940.

Original publication in PNAS:

Georgia Clay, Christopher Mlynski, Franziska Korb, Thomas Goschke and Veronika Job: Rewarding cognitive effort increases the intrinsic value of mental labor, In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). Release date: 2022-01-28.

The Collaborative Research Center 940 “Volition and Cognitive Control

The Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 940 “Volition and Cognitive Control” was created in 2012 and is currently in its 3rd funding period. Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the center combines expertise from the fields of experimental psychology, cognitive-affective neuroscience and neuroimaging, clinical psychology, psychiatry and neurology to study the mechanisms, modulators and dysfunctions of volitional control at the psychological level and neural levels of analysis. Based on an interdisciplinary network, the SFB 940 aims not only to expand our understanding of the basic mechanisms of control of volitional action, but also to lay the long-term foundations for better prevention and therapy of alterations in volitional control. volitional action in mental disorders. The spokesperson is Thomas Goschke, professor of general psychology at TU Dresden. https://tu-dresden.de/bereichsuebergreifendes/sfb940

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