When given the choice between a difficult task and an easy task, it’s natural to expect that people will choose the easy one. In daily life and in most scientific work, effort is typically conceptualized as a cost. Brain imaging studies, for example, often look at how the brain trades off effort-related costs against reward-related benefits each time we make a choice.
This story is somewhat oversimplified though. We might normally avoid effort, but there are many examples of how we actively seek it out too. You may be the sort of person who enjoys a crossword or wants to train for a marathon or loses hours of sleep thinking about pointless philosophical questions (is that just me?). Maybe you’re even participating in the current Wordle craze?
In these examples, we exert effort purely for the fun of it. There isn’t a huge payoff waiting at the other end of crosswords or Wordles — merely the satisfaction of having completed them. And yet, we want to put the effort in.
One new study has tested whether people can be trained to prefer tasks that require higher rather than lower effort, and the results are reshaping how we think about struggle and success.
Learning to choose the hard way
In a study published in early 2022, researchers from the University of Vienna and TU Dresden investigated whether you can strengthen your willingness to take on a challenge. In their first study, they recruited 121 people and asked them to play a classic memory game. The game is called the N-back task, and it presents a sequence of letters — one at a time — while asking you to hit a button when a letter matches one you saw N letters ago.
The N affects how difficult the task is. A 1-back task is easy since you’re looking for the immediate repetition of a letter. If you see the letters B > D > E > E, then you immediately hit the button when the E appears right after another E.
A 3-back task is more difficult since you hit the button only when a letter is the same as the letter that appeared three letters previously. This means you need to…