Conscious cognitive effort in cognitive control

WIREs Cognitive Science (forthcoming)
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Cognitive effort is thought to be familiar in everyday life, ubiquitous across multiple variations of task and circumstance, and integral to cost/benefit computations that are themselves central to the proper functioning of cognitive control. In particular, cognitive effort is thought to be closely related to the assessment of cognitive control’s costs. I argue here that the construct of cognitive effort, as it is deployed in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, is problematically unclear. The result is that talk of cognitive effort may paper over significant disagreement regarding the nature of cognitive effort, and its key functions for cognitive control. I highlight key points of disagreement, and several open questions regarding what causes cognitive effort, what cognitive effort represents, cognitive effort’s relationship to action, and cognitive effort’s relationship to consciousness. I also suggest that pluralism about cognitive effort – that cognitive effort may manifest as a range of intentional or non-intentional actions the function of which is to promote greater success at paradigmatic cognitive control tasks – may be a fruitful and irenic way to conceive of cognitive effort. Finally, I suggest that recent trends in work on cognitive control suggests that we might fruitfully conceive of cognitive effort as one key node in a complex network of mental value, and that studying this complex network may illuminate the nature of cognitive control, and the role of consciousness in cognitive control’s proper functioning.
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