Balancing the cognitive effort balance: effort being costly and valued

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2021-07-06
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en
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Can exertion of cognitive effort be rewarding it itself? Where most research focuses on the aversive side of effort, there are also situations in which people explicitly enjoy cognitive effort exertion. Research on flow experiences points towards the intrinsic value of optimal challenging activities, such that intermediately challenging tasks receive higher liking and engagement scores compared to easy and difficult tasks. Intrinsic motivation accounts suggest that this value could arise from its potential for improvement. Moreover, pupillary dynamics have been associated with task engagement as well. The goal of this study was to investigate when cognitive effort exertion is intrinsically rewarding and hence preferred, and which cognitive processes are underlying this preference. In a design with individually defined difficulty levels and subjective and objective measures of engagement, we showed that intermediately challenging tasks received the highest subjective and objective engagement scores, as well as the greatest prediction error magnitude. These findings indicate that performance uncertainty might by the underlying mechanism of flow experiences. Moreover, greater pupil sizes during cue period of intermediate tasks together with smaller pupil size during easy and difficult tasks suggest that the brain at forehand differentiates between tasks that are worthwhile it to engage in and tasks that are not. As the pupillary responses are following noradrenaline-based arousal activity, locus-coeruleus activity might mediate this relationship between optimal challenge preference and task uncertainty. ___________________________ Keywords: Cognitive effort; Cognitive avoidance; Flow; Motivation; Cognitive control; Physiology
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Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen