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

  1. Todd A Vogel  Is a corresponding author
  2. Zachary M Savelson
  3. A Ross Otto
  4. Mathieu Roy  Is a corresponding author
  1. McGill University, Canada
  2. Carleton University, Canada
Research Article
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Cite this article as: eLife 2020;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.

Data availability

All data analyzed for this study can be found on OSF (https://osf.io/n4cht/).

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Todd A Vogel

    Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-0895-3845
  2. Zachary M Savelson

    Institute of Cognitive Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. A Ross Otto

    Department of Psychology, McGill University, Quebec, Canada
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-9997-1901
  4. Mathieu Roy

    Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (RGPIN-2017-03918)

  • A Ross Otto

Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies (2018-NC-204806)

  • A Ross Otto

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (RGPIN-2016-06682)

  • Mathieu Roy

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: Informed written consent was obtained from all participants and the study was approved by the McGill University Research Ethics Board (REB File # 247-1117).

Reviewing Editor

  1. Jonathan Roiser, University College London, United Kingdom

Publication history

  1. Received: May 28, 2020
  2. Accepted: November 16, 2020
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: November 17, 2020 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: December 3, 2020 (version 2)


© 2020, Vogel et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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