Acute Psychosocial Stress Increases Cognitive-Effort Avoidance

Psychological Science


Abstract Adverse effects following acute stress are traditionally thought to reflect functional impairments of central executive-dependent cognitive-control processes. However, recent evidence demonstrates that cognitive-control application is perceived as effortful and aversive, indicating that stress-related decrements in cognitive performance could denote decreased motivation to expend effort instead. To investigate this hypothesis, we tested 40 young, healthy individuals (20 female, 20 male) under both stress and control conditions in a 2-day study that had a within-subjects design. Cognitive-effort avoidance was assessed using the demand-selection task, in which participants chose between performing low-demand and high-demand variants of a task-switching paradigm. We found that acute stress indeed increased participants’ preference for less demanding behavior, whereas task-switching performance remained intact. Additional Bayesian and multiverse analyses confirmed the robustness of this effect. Our findings provide novel insights into how stressful experiences shape behavior by modulating our motivation to employ cognitive control.