Forced choices reveal a trade-off between cognitive effort and physical pain

Elife. 2020 Nov 17:9:e59410. doi: 10.7554/eLife.59410.


Cognitive effort is described as aversive, and people will generally avoid it when possible. This aversion to effort is believed to arise from a cost-benefit analysis of the actions available. The comparison of cognitive effort against other primary aversive experiences, however, remains relatively unexplored. Here, we offered participants choices between performing a cognitively demanding task or experiencing thermal pain. We found that cognitive effort can be traded off for physical pain and that people generally avoid exerting high levels of cognitive effort. We also used computational modelling to examine the aversive subjective value of effort and its effects on response behaviours. Applying this model to decision times revealed asymmetric effects of effort and pain, suggesting that cognitive effort may not share the same basic influences on avoidance behaviour as more primary aversive stimuli such as physical pain.

Keywords: behavioural economics; cognitive effort; computational modelling; decision-making; human; neuroscience; pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Choice Behavior*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Pain*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Young Adult