Say you are at a new place, trying to find your way back to your hotel. One option is to get a map of the city and try to coordinate your position in relation to your hotel and start drawing your route. The other option is to start your GPS and retrieve step-by-step instructions on your phone. You don’t need to run a scientific study to say that most people will prefer the latter when given the option!

What makes cognitive effort aversive?

Although intuitive, the concept of cognitive effort avoidance has been subjected to empirical testing only recently. The initial question was ‘what makes cognitive effort aversive?’. One of the leading theories suggested that people avoid cognitive effort because cognitive control is costly. We exert cognitive control on a daily basis, when we are splitting the bill without a calculator, attending a lecture, or reading this blog post!

Confirming this theory, numerous studies showed that people avoid tasks that recruit greater control. Furthermore, this was the case even when the researchers offered greater rewards for the performance of these tasks! These results indicated that cognitive control incurs a subjective cost. These behavioral observations were additionally backed with neural tests in which performance of the more difficult task yielded greater activity in the brain regions associated with cognitive control (prefrontal cortex) and reduced activity in the brain regions associated with tracking reward-related information (ventral striatum).

…But can effort really be always aversive?

However, this theory was recently challenged by new empirical work. In this study, we manipulated cognitive effort in six levels while observing brain activity during the performance of each level. The difference of this design was that by manipulating effort demands parametrically, we increased our sensitivity to detect changes in the behavioral and neural response function in a dose-dependent fashion. Additionally, we avoided using monetary reward in our task, given that literature suggests that the involvement of monetary reward might undermine intrinsic motivation.

Congruent with the effort avoidance literature, we showed that half of the fMRI sample (N=50) showed a decreasing likelihood to choose the more effortful task. However, incongruent with the literature, we showed that, in the absence of reward, the other half of the participants showed greater likelihood to select a task with greater control demands. This makes sense because if everyone was always avoiding cognitive effort, how could we specialize in our jobs, develop hobbies or enjoy trivia nights?

Do we by ‘default’ think of ourselves, rather than the task?

Furthermore, although our effort manipulation led to greater cognitive control network recruitment and reduced reward network recruitment in the brain, neither of these networks explained effort choices. On the contrary, what explained effort avoidance behavior in effort avoidant individuals was a network called the ‘Default-Mode Network’.

This network is usually associated with thoughts unrelated to task, such as self-referential thoughts and ruminations; and during task-performance, this network is usually deactivated. Those participants who showed effort avoidance behavior in our task showed the least deactivation of this network. Although speculative, this might actually imply something we can all relate to: what makes a task feel effortful might be our engagement in our own thoughts instead of the task at hand!

Future of cognitive effort research

Now, our job is to understand more about the conditions under which people enjoy cognitive effort. One leading theory suggests that people enjoy effort to the extent they feel like they are making progress at a task. Think of playing a video game as an example, once you are done playing a difficulty level, you move onto playing a slightly more difficult one. When given the option, you probably would not select an easier level instead, because it feels exciting to learn about this new level and master it when you can. This natural tendency to select challenging tasks that provide a learning opportunity can shed light on how intrinsic motivation works and why it fails during effort avoidance. Perhaps after all, tasks that we avoid are just those tasks we think we can no longer learn from!

This blog post was written by Ceyda Sayali. This paper is now published in Neuropsychologia.