How pleasant is cognitive effort?

How pleasant is cognitive effort? This is a difficult question to answer. People like doing puzzles, but at the same time, my students sometimes sigh if I make them think. It looks like people like to take the path of least resistance when it comes to cognitive effort. Researchers have now come to a different conclusion: once people receive a reward for their effort investment, they later choose challenging tasks even if they no longer receive a reward.

From the press release:

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

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

In a current project of the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 940 “Volition and Cognitive Control,” researchers from the University of Vienna and the Technische Universität Dresden aimed to address this question. Headed by Veronika Job, Thomas Goschke, and Franziska Korb, the team investigated under controlled conditions whether people who were rewarded for their effort in a cognitive task were willing to exert more effort in a new follow-up task than people in a control group — even if they were aware that they would not receive any further reward in the process.

Willingness to exert effort increases even after a short training period

In the first experiment with 121 participants, first authors Georgia Clay and Christopher Mlynski used cardiovascular measurements (activity of the heart) to determine how hard people exerted themselves in cognitive tasks of varying difficult levels during a training phase. In one group, reward was directly determined by effort: if a person exerted more effort on difficult levels of the task, they received a higher reward than on easier levels in which they exerted little effort. In the control group, the reward was randomly assigned and was independent of how much effort someone invested. The total reward on offer was kept constant between groups, with only the contingency between effort and reward being manipulated. Subsequently, all subjects worked on math tasks where they could choose the difficulty level of the tasks they wanted to work on. The conclusion: “Subjects who had previously been rewarded for effort subsequently chose more difficult tasks than 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.

Further experiments confirm results

In order to investigate whether the effects of an effort-dependent reward can be replicated and generalized, five further experiments were conducted online with a total of 1,457 participant. Here, people in the experimental group received a higher reward for difficult tasks than for easy tasks, regardless of how well they solved the tasks. Thus, the reward again depended on the cognitive effort required and not on the performance of the participants. It was again found that effort-dependent reward led people to prefer the more difficult tasks, which required more cognitive effort, in a subsequent test phase in which they were again free to choose the task difficulty.

These results challenge the widely held view in current theories of cognitive psychology and neuroscience that effort 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 challenging tasks could rather be the result of individual learning histories that differ depending on the reward pattern: was it mainly performance or effort that was rewarded?” concludes Thomas Goschke, Professor of General Psychology at TU Dresden and spokesperson of SFB 940.

Abstract of the study:

Current models of mental effort in psychology, behavioral economics, and cognitive neuroscience typically suggest that exerting cognitive effort is aversive, and people avoid it whenever possible. The aim of this research was to challenge this view and show that people can learn to value and seek effort intrinsically. Our experiments tested the hypothesis that effort-contingent reward in a working-memory task will induce a preference for more demanding math tasks in a transfer phase, even though participants were aware that they would no longer receive any reward for task performance. In laboratory Experiment 1 (n = 121), we made reward directly contingent on mobilized cognitive effort as assessed via cardiovascular measures (β-adrenergic sympathetic activity) during the training task. Experiments 2a to 2e (n = 1,457) were conducted online to examine whether the effects of effort-contingent reward on subsequent demand seeking replicate and generalize to community samples. Taken together, the studies yielded reliable evidence that effort-contingent reward increased participants’ demand seeking and preference for the exertion of cognitive effort on the transfer task. Our findings provide evidence that people can learn to assign positive value to mental effort. The results challenge currently dominant theories of mental effort and provide evidence and an explanation for the positive effects of environments appreciating effort and individual growth on people’s evaluation of effort and their willingness to mobilize effort and approach challenging tasks.

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