Neural systems of cognitive demand avoidance

Neuropsychologia. 2019 Feb 4;123:41-54. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.06.016. Epub 2018 Jun 23.


Cognitive effort is typically aversive, evident in people's tendency to avoid cognitively demanding tasks. The 'cost of control' hypothesis suggests that engagement of cognitive control systems of the brain makes a task costly and the currency of that cost is a reduction in anticipated rewards. However, prior studies have relied on binary hard versus easy task subtractions to manipulate cognitive effort and so have not tested this hypothesis in "dose-response" fashion. In a sample of 50 participants, we parametrically manipulated the level of effort during fMRI scanning by systematically increasing cognitive control demands during a demand-selection paradigm over six levels. As expected, frontoparietal control network (FPN) activity increased, and reward network activity decreased, as control demands increased across tasks. However, avoidance behavior was not attributable to the change in FPN activity, lending only partial support to the cost of control hypothesis. By contrast, we unexpectedly observed that the de-activation of a task-negative brain network corresponding to the Default Mode Network (DMN) across levels of the cognitive control manipulation predicted the change in avoidance. In summary, we find partial support for the cost of control hypothesis, while highlighting the role of task-negative brain networks in modulating effort avoidance behavior.

Keywords: Cognitive control; Cognitive effort; Effort avoidance; Effort cost; Reward.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult