Cognitive performance in pain is predicted by effort, not goal desire

Jayne Pickering, Nina Fay Attridge, Matthew Inglis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Background: Pain’s disruptive effects on cognition are well documented. The seminal goal-pursuit account of pain suggests that cognitive disruption is less likely if participants are motivated to attended to a focal goal and not a pain goal.

Objectives: Existing theory is unclear about the conceptualisation and operationalisation of ‘focal goal’. This study aims to clarify how goals should be conceptualised and further seeks to test the theory of the goal-pursuit account.

Methods: In a pre-registered laboratory experiment, 56 participants completed an arithmetic task in high-reward/low-reward and pain/control conditions. Pain was induced via cold-water immersion.

Results: High levels of reported effort exertion predicted cognitive-task performance, whereas desire for rewards did not. Post-hoc analyses further suggest that additional effort in the pain condition compensated for pain’s disruptive effects, but when this extra effort was not exerted, performance deficits were observed in pain, compared to control, conditions.

Conclusion: Results suggest that ‘motivation’, or commitment to a focal goal, is best understood as effort exertion and not as a positive desire to achieve a goal. These results solidify existing theory and aid researchers in operationalising these constructs.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0258874
Number of pages11
JournalPLoS One
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 4 Nov 2021


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