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Sense and Sensibility Shape Our Experience of Effort

How much exertion something seems to cost depends on variability and effort.

Key points

  • Perceptions of exertion influence decisions to start or continue behaviors.
  • Feelings of exertion are heightened when performances are more variable, such as when one begins something new.
  • The increased perception of effort may be overcome by ongoing effort to achieve and learn.

We hear lots of talk about "effort" and the "cost" of doing things. I've used those words a lot on this site, especially about determination. Decisions about cost influence our intentions to carry out actions. But what do we really know about the neurobiology of effort and intentions?

Beyond Sense and Sensibility

Our perception of effort influences whether we start, continue, or quit doing things. If we are exercising and we feel something is less effort than it should be, we might work harder. Or if it's too hard, we might bring it down or bring it to a stop.

What if you did an experiment where you objectively measured how strongly folks did an action, then asked them to gauge their relative sense of effort, and also did brain imaging to estimate levels of neurotransmitters? Well, you don't have to do that because Eric J. Hu and colleagues from Baltimore, Dallas, and London did this actual clever study.

More than 30 participants did a hand grip task that helped show that variability in exertion was related to an inflated perception of effort. In other words, when the outcome was less consistent, folks felt that the task was harder. This was linked to the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, that moderated performance variability and perceptions of overassessments of effort. Basic features of motor performance and sensorimotor
neurochemistry, therefore, have a strong influence on "cognitive processes related to feelings of effort."

In a way, it's like the mismatch between what folks intended versus what they achieved made the task seem harder. The researchers put forward the interesting suggestion that people who have a better sense of their own actual performances have lower sensations of effort. Perhaps with training, folks could get better at tuning "their nervous system to accommodate their desired sensorimotor output." This work also highlights the importance of objective and measurable assessments of performance because there can be weak associations for some.

Perceiving Is Believing

In a way, we can think of our sense of effort as like the psychological equivalent of intensity, which is influenced by our intentions. This is balanced against how successful we perceive our exertions to be in achieving our goals.

This makes me think about what it's like to learn a motor skill. For example, consider a long movement sequence in martial arts, where the use of patterns and forms is often found. When learning a form, it feels like it takes so long to complete; it seems to be extremely draining, and you have a feeling that you are having hit-and-miss success with every repetition. Basically, you feel like you are making a lot of mistakes, and it feels very hard and challenging. As you gain more skill, the variability of your performance goes down, the form seems easier and the duration of time needed to perform it seems much shorter.

Understanding this is critical to an enhanced understanding of human behavioral choice. That's because how hard something seems to be is a key factor in how we assess if it's worth doing; the mental calculus of risk, reward, benefit, and effort. The point is, when we do something new, it's going to feel harder than it will feel later. But that "hard" is part of the process of getting to "easier," and we need to be vigilant that such temporary discomfort doesn't put us off.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2022)

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