Can we learn to enjoy mental effort?
To achieve many important goals in life, mental effort is important. But aren't we as humans rather lazy than tired? Researcher Georgia Clay and a few colleagues investigated the extent to which rewarding mental effort leads people to learn to appreciate it.
Mental effort as something we want to avoid
Traditionally, psychologists, economists and neuroscientists have seen mental effort as something we prefer to avoid as much as possible. For example, Clark Hull formulated his law of less work in 1943, Fiske & Taylor called people cognitive misers and the view of man within economics was for a long time that of the homo economicus (an individual trying to maximize personal utility by putting in minimal effort).
Mental effort as something we seek voluntarily
Yet in daily life we regularly look for situations in which we voluntarily seek mental effort, for example when we do a challenging puzzle, want to learn a new language or want to learn to play a musical instrument. Apparently we can still experience it as rewarding. How is that possible?
Research Clay et al. (2022)
Georgia Clay et al. (2022) investigated whether rewarding mental effort can lead people to perceive mental effort itself as attractive even when there is no extrinsic reward of the result of that effort.
The researchers showed in a lab experiment and an online experiment that rewarding (objectively measured) effort in a mental task (a working memory task) led to more interest in the next task (a challenging math sum) even though the subjects knew that they were not involved in this task. would receive more rewards for it.
The researchers conclude that effort can become a secondary reinforcer. Having previously been linked to getting a reward, the effort itself eventually comes to feel like a reward.
A few thoughts:
- Mental effort can become enjoyable: This research suggests that effort doesn't have to be aversive to humans. We can learn to value it intrinsically.
- Relationship to mindset: This study fits well with research on growth mindsets. In growth mindset cultures, more emphasis is placed on valuing effort and growth. In a fixed mindset, we think negatively about effort (as an indication that we lack aptitude for the activity). In a growth mindset, we see effort as positive, namely as a way to develop our capabilities.
- Relation to the undermining effect: The researchers are aware of the undermining effect, the phenomenon that rewards can undermine the intrinsic motivation for a specific activity. That is why they chose a different task as the second task in their experiment. It is important to note, however, that in studies of the undermining effect, the outcome of the effort was rewarded (e.g. a correctly solved puzzle), not the objectively measured degree of effort.
- Rewarding success can make effort undesirable: in everyday life (in education and work) we are often rewarded not for effort but for success. This can lead to people avoiding challenging activities and cheating because they reduce the chance of success.
- Rewarding effort can also be tricky: in practice, rewarding effort may be a little less easy than in these experiments. In the experiments, the degree of effort was objectively measured, so that the reward could be linked to actual effort. In everyday life, however, making an effort can also be faked. Knowing that rewards can be earned with effort, you may also be tempted to cheat by merely pretending to make an effort.