What is it about?

Our minds have the powerful ability to exert cognitive control, a set of functions that help us perform novel, nonroutine, and goal-directed actions rather than compelling, more habitual, alternatives (Miller & Cohen, 2001). However, implementing control tends to be costly: people generally aim to avoid it. Because control takes many forms, it is important to understand whether such costs apply universally. In our paper, we examined whether people avoid reactive control, which is recruited in response to stimulus or contextual features (in other words, when it is needed). For example, you use reactive control when you plan a new route to work in response to encountering a roadblock on your morning commute. Interestingly, some research suggests that reactive control is deployed automatically and that it does not depend on attentional resources. Here, we investigated whether people avoided implementing reactive control in three experiments. In all, participants responded to animal pictures in a version of the Stroop task, a gold-standard paradigm for measuring cognitive control. In this task, people sometimes need to deal with conflict, where they need to resolve competition between a correct response and a compelling but incorrect alternative. In our task, some animals were associated with a lot of conflict (requiring enhanced focus), whereas others were not (allowing reduced focus). In our first study, we showed that people learned to approach items with different settings, even in a “transfer” phase where they produced the same amount of conflict. Then, we ran two experiments in which people could choose to avoid stimuli that previously produced a lot of conflict. In both, participants continued to use enhanced focused control in response to animal pictures that previously produced conflict, but they did not choose to avoid them. Critically, we found that participants only avoided demanding pictures when there was an objective difference in conflict between options. These findings are consistent with the idea that implementing reactive control does not register as costly.

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Why is it important?

​​While humans use attentional control to achieve their goals and avoid distractions, it has been theorized that its deployment may be avoided due to the mental effort required. However, not all forms of control are equal: It has been suggested that adjusting attention in response to a stimulus may be relatively effortless. We provide a new test of this idea by using stimuli associated with different amounts of reactive control in a paradigm that measures how much people want to avoid effortful stimuli. We demonstrate that subjects first learn to associate different control settings with groups of stimuli that require different levels of attention. However, they continue to hold onto them after they become outdated. Crucially, despite these differences in implemented control settings, participants did not avoid choice options associated with the previously high-demand stimuli. This result indicates that reactively focusing attention is inexpensive. In addition to theoretical implications about the nature of control, these results indicate that setting up demands to rely on reactive control might substantially diminish subjective motivational and implementational constraints.


This paper was one of my first scientific endeavors as a young investigator. The project challenged me to delve into the literature on attentional control and explore how the cost of enacting certain attentional strategies might differ between their perceived effort and their actual experienced ease. Navigating through the stages of conceptualization, conducting experiments, analyzing data, and writing up the findings was demanding, but immensely rewarding. I am eager to continue developing this work and its potential to yield real-world applications that serve to drive new strategies that diminish subjective motivational and implementational constraints.

Bettina Bustos
University of Iowa

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This page is a summary of: Humans do not avoid reactively implementing cognitive control., Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception & Performance, April 2024, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/xhp0001207.
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