Mental Effort

Why studying Mental Effort is important?

We all exert mental effort in our everyday activities from the most basic small decisions to the more complicated hard decisions and tasks we perform. Our nervous system is designed to do both: automatic effortless and cognitive effortful processes and tasks. Studying how our nervous system uses both the effortless and effortful processes will help us understand the role mental effort plays in our decision making, attention, performance, adaptation, quality of our life and perhaps the improved mental health.

While mechanistic basis of mental effort remains poorly understood, there are research and theories to explain the phenomenology of mental effort. The Cost-Benefit Theory (1) tries to explain why and when we experience mental effort as aversive. They argue that the mental effort is the result of the output processes which tracks the expected costs and benefits of effortful mental activity and weigh them against each other. When the expected costs outweighs the expected benefits, an aversive state is generated. One of the reasons this happens, based on their explanation, is due to the limited resource of cognitive control. Cognitive control as limited resource is seen mostly in the terms of involving opportunity cost. When we focus only on one thing we lose other important information and opportunities. In terms of capacity-effort- performance, the paper describes this relationship not as a straightforward. Increased mental effort doesn’t necessarily lead to increased performance. There are times when increased in cognitive effort can actually harm performance when expert judgement can be out-performed by simple rules based on quantifiable observations. So the question remains: what is the mechanism underlying the process of decision making when it comes to mental effort?

Effort Paradox: Costly and Valued

Another paper “Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued”(2) expands the notion of costs regarding mental effort arguing that the effort itself can be highly rewarding and valued. Here effort is defined as intensification of mental and/or physical activity in the service of meeting some goal. There are many theories and phenomena described in the paper that explain how and why effort is valued by some people that has to do with their personality such as need for cognition (3) or learned industriousness (associative learning where high effort is paired with high reward).

What next?

After reviewing these papers my goal is to continue to expand and contribute in mental effort studies by constructing a new hypothesis and collect data to come up with some new possibilities and experiment designs that can shed light in terms of mechanisms taking place during mental effort!


  1. Székely, M., Michael, J. The Sense of Effort: a Cost-Benefit Theory of the Phenomenology of Mental Effort. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2020).
  2. Inzlicht, M., Shenhav, A., Olivola, Y, Ch. The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued. Trends Cogn Sci. (2018) 22(4):337-349.
  3. Cacioppo, T. J., Petty, E, R., & Kao, F. Ch. The Efficient Assessment of Need for Cognition. Journal of Personality Assessment. (1984) 48:3, 306-307.

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