Psychological Research

, Volume 83, Issue 5, pp 1033–1056 | Cite as

Anticipating cognitive effort: roles of perceived error-likelihood and time demands

  • Timothy L. DunnEmail author
  • Michael Inzlicht
  • Evan F. Risko
Original Article


Why are some actions evaluated as effortful? In the present set of experiments we address this question by examining individuals’ perception of effort when faced with a trade-off between two putative cognitive costs: how much time a task takes vs. how error-prone it is. Specifically, we were interested in whether individuals anticipate engaging in a small amount of hard work (i.e., low time requirement, but high error-likelihood) vs. a large amount of easy work (i.e., high time requirement, but low error-likelihood) as being more effortful. In between-subject designs, Experiments 1 through 3 demonstrated that individuals anticipate options that are high in perceived error-likelihood (yet less time consuming) as more effortful than options that are perceived to be more time consuming (yet low in error-likelihood). Further, when asked to evaluate which of the two tasks was (a) more effortful, (b) more error-prone, and (c) more time consuming, effort-based and error-based choices closely tracked one another, but this was not the case for time-based choices. Utilizing a within-subject design, Experiment 4 demonstrated overall similar pattern of judgments as Experiments 1 through 3. However, both judgments of error-likelihood and time demand similarly predicted effort judgments. Results are discussed within the context of extant accounts of cognitive control, with considerations of how error-likelihood and time demands may independently and conjunctively factor into judgments of cognitive effort.


Compliance with ethical standards


This work was supported by a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and funding from the Canada Research Chairs program to Evan F. Risko.

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest pertaining to the development or submission of this manuscript.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in these studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards, and were approved by the University of Waterloo Office of Research Ethics.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leeds School of BusinessUniversity of Colorado BoulderBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Rotman School of ManagementTorontoCanada
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversiy of WaterlooWaterlooCanada

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