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If it’s hard to read… try harder! Processing fluency as signal for effort adjustments


Experiencing difficulties during information processing can either be used as signal for the increased need of cognitive effort (“try harder”), or as avoidance signal for future action selection (“avoid and switch”). These alternative ideas are currently reflected in two seemingly opposing theories of anterior cingulate cortex function, namely the conflict monitoring versus the outcome evaluation account. Botvinick (2007) recently suggested that both positions might converge on the detection of aversive signals. Here, we will show that low perceptual fluency, which is known to evoke negative affective reactions, triggers the mobilization of cognitive effort even in the absence of response conflicts. More precisely, in three experiments effort adjustments in reaction to fluency manipulations as indicated by significant interactions of Fluency N  × FluencyN−1 were found. It follows that an aversive signal (here: low fluency) is not only used for effort prediction but also for effort adjustments.

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  1. 1.

    There exists an ongoing debate whether these sequential modulation effects, originally detected by Gratton, Coles, and Donchin (1992) can also be explained by repetition priming and/or episodic retrieval (e.g., Hommel, Proctor, & Vu, 2004; Mayr, Awh, & Laurey, 2003). However, even if it is taken care of such partial repetitions, sequential effects can still be found (e.g. Kerns et al., 2004) such that nowadays, most researchers agree that both, repetition priming and control adjustments can account for the observed sequential effects (see Egner, 2007, for a review).

  2. 2.

    The question of why a predictable fluency order results in such a block effect remains and unfortunately, we do not have a satisfying answer for this. In addition, while Mayr & Awh (2008) showed decreasing sequence effects over time, in our lab we found rather increasing sequence effects over time (Plessow, Fischer, Kirschbaum, & Goschke, 2010). We think that the issue of the block effect cannot be resolved in the present study and certainly requires further research.

  3. 3.

    One might wonder, however, why increased effort in response to a non-fluent trial should slow down RTs on fluent trials in the first place. In typical response conflict tasks, compatible trials suffer after incompatible trials, because the irrelevant but response compatible information in compatible trials is (presumably) inhibited. Such mechanism is obviously not applicable to fluent trials in the paradigm used here. However, we think that “trying harder” increases RTs on fluent trials because—when expecting something difficult—the cognitive system is running in a more controlled and less automatic (reading) mode which then results in slower RTs.


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Correspondence to Gesine Dreisbach.

Additional information

We would like to thank Julia Fritz and Sara Hansen for data collection.

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Dreisbach, G., Fischer, R. If it’s hard to read… try harder! Processing fluency as signal for effort adjustments. Psychological Research 75, 376–383 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-010-0319-y

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  • Anterior Cingulate Cortex
  • Incongruent Trial
  • Response Conflict
  • Conflict Monitoring
  • Perceptual Fluency