People like to take the path of least resistance when it comes to cognitive effort – a common assumption in cognitive psychology. Researchers at the University of Vienna and the Technische Universität Dresden 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. The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).
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 Professor 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.
The Collaborative Research Center 940 ‘Volition and Cognitive Control’
The Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 940 ‘Volition and Cognitive Control’ was established 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 investigate mechanisms, modulators, and dysfunctions of volitional control at the psychological 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 volitional action control, but also to lay the long-term foundations for improved prevention and therapy of impairments of volitional action control in mental disorders. The spokesperson is Thomas Goschke, professor of general psychology at TU Dresden.