Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Perseverant Cognitive Effort and Disengagement
by Fortgang, Rebecca G., Ph.D., Yale University, 2018, 207; 13851868
Abstract (Summary)

Willingness to expend effort has received increased attention over the past decade, and for good reason – effort is crucial to life's successes, and many of us wish we could harness and control it more optimally. In particular, cognitive effort is central to academic and vocational achievements. Though effort is important, it is also costly. If it were not, no projects would be left unfinished, and no treadmills would be abandoned early. Because it is costly, self-control is often required to exert and maintain effort. Reduced willingness to expend effort has also come into focus as a clinically relevant variable related to amotivation, most notably in schizophrenia. Additionally, both incentive motivation (immediate monetary reward availability) and effort have been linked with cognitive performance, suggesting that our measures of cognitive ability are inexorably linked to and to some degree confounded by cognitive effort.

In this dissertation, I present a novel paradigm developed for the assessment of perseverant cognitive effort in the absence of monetary incentive. The Cognitive Effort and DisEngagement (CEDE) task is a cognitive test that increases in difficulty and measures perseverant effort disengagement in a simple but novel way: participants are permitted to skip trials without penalty. The present work introduces the task, situates it within a framework of self-control divided into inhibitory and actuating mechanisms, and provides evidence of its association with stable traits, context, and psychosis.

The first set of studies (Chapter 1) tests the reliability and validity of the CEDE task in an undergraduate sample and a community sample. We find evidence of high internal consistency using a split-half method. We also find that skips on the CEDE show convergent validity in terms of correlation with self-reported perseverance and work ethic, as well as discriminant validity, showing lack of significant relationships with several theoretically distinct aspects of self-control. We also show evidence of tolerability of the paradigm and of face validity of skipping as an index of effort disengagement.

In Chapter 2, we test the effect of observation on perseverant effort on the CEDE task. We find that participants skip significantly more trials when they are observed by an experimenter with access to information about their performance via sound effects, compared with than when they have privacy (when the experimenter leaves the room, or when the participant wears headphones). We also find that self-reported internal motivational style predicts more perseverant effort when in private, whereas external motivational style predicts more effort when observed, suggesting that motivational styles exert influence differentially depending on features of the context. We also show that self-reported stress during the task negatively predicts performance, and that this relationship is fully mediated by skips. These results suggest that observation has a potent effect on cognitive task effort, affecting people differently according to motivational style, and that test anxiety also promotes effort disengagement.

In Chapter 3, we test for group differences in skips between individuals with first episode psychosis (FEP) and community controls, as schizophrenia is associated with both a cognitive and a motivational impairment. We show reduced perseverant cognitive effort on the CEDE in FEP. We find that this group difference specifically emerges during difficult trials, suggesting specifically a deficit in perseverance in reaction to difficulty rather than continuous attention throughout the test. We also show that reduction of effort in the form of skips is correlated with self-reported amotivation among patients. These results suggest clinical relevance of perseverant cognitive effort in schizophrenia as a component or reflection of motivational impairments.

Together, these findings provide novel insight into cognitive effort perseverance, its relationship to non-monetary motivations in terms of motivational style and observational context, and its reduction in psychosis. Our findings also highlight the relevance of cognitive effort perseverance to cognitive testing. Willingness to expend cognitive effort appears to be sensitive to numerous factors in the context of difficulty, when the demands on effort are higher, whereas it is relatively steadfast during easier tasks.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Cannon, Tyrone
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-B 80/07(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Psychology, Clinical psychology, Personality psychology
Keywords: Effort, Impulsivity, Perseverance, Psychosis, Schizophrenia, Self-Control
Publication Number: 13851868
ISBN: 978-0-438-98331-1
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