Investigating Performance in a Strenuous Physical Task from the Perspective of Self-Control

Brain Sci. 2019 Nov 9;9(11):317. doi: 10.3390/brainsci9110317.


It has been proposed that one reason physical effort is perceived as costly is because of the self-control demands that are necessary to persist in a physically demanding task. The application of control has been conceptualized as a value-based decision, that hinges on an optimization of the costs of control and available reward. Here, we drew on labor supply theory to investigate the effects of an Income Compensated Wage Decrease (ICWD) on persistence in a strenuous physical task. Research has shown that an ICWD reduced the amount of self-control participants are willing to apply, and we expected this to translate to a performance decrement in a strenuous physical task. Contrary to our expectations, participants in the ICWD group outperformed the control group in terms of persistence, without incurring higher levels of muscle fatigue or ratings of perceived exertion. Improved performance was accompanied by increases in task efficiency and a lesser increase in oxygenation of the prefrontal cortex, an area of relevance for the application of self-control. These results suggest that the relationship between the regulation of physical effort and self-control is less straightforward than initially assumed: less top-down self-control might allow for more efficient execution of motor tasks, thereby allowing for improved performance. Moreover, these findings indicate that psychological manipulations can affect physical performance, not by modulating how much one is willing to deplete limited physical resources, but by altering how tasks are executed.

Keywords: Muscle fatigue; motivation; performance; self-control; voluntary activation.