Could we teach someone to enjoy hard puzzles?

Suppose you have two options with similar outcomes but requiring different levels of effort. Which one would you choose? Probably the one that takes less effort! Most economists and some psychologists would agree with you that less effort is better.

But if we look at real-life examples around us, we will see lots of instances where people would seek effort for seemingly no reason. People spend their free time solving puzzles or engaging in involved and effortful intellectual discussions with no clear benefits. These mentally effortful activities have no particular added benefits. This observation leads to an important question: Does mental effort, in and of itself and irrespective of the outcome, have any intrinsic value for us? If so, is it possible to enhance mental effort seeking through learning?  In a recent paper,  Clay and colleagues answered these questions. 

In one experiment, participants first engaged in a short-term memory task that was sometimes easy, hard, or in-between. To measure mental effort, experimenters recorded the participant’s heart rate and some other physiological indicators. Importantly, one group of participants received more rewards if their physiological measures indicated that they had put in a lot of effort. Note also that the reward did not depend on success or failure in the short-term memory task. This group of participants was called the “effort-contingent reward” group. There was another “Control” group of participants who went through the exact same procedure except that their reward was assigned completely randomly irrespective of their success or effort.

Having done the first part, both groups then did a math effort task (MET): here they had to solve a fixed number of math problems and they could choose the difficulty level of each problem. Importantly, for both groups, the reward was fixed and did not depend on the level of difficulty or success. Clay and colleagues wanted to know if the experience of having learned to receive a reward for effort in the effort-contingent group might subsequently make this group seek harder math puzzles to solve.

The results showed two things: First, in both groups, participants avoided the easiest math problems. Figure 1 shows that level 1 problems were almost never chosen. Note that participants could have and if they did they would have finished the experiment more quickly and easily with the same payment. This is very important! This goes against the fundamental assumptions of classical economics which, beginning with Adam Smith in the 17th century, has assumed that self-interested humans always want to get the highest gain for the lowest effort.  This is strong evidence that mental effort is in and of itself rewarding. 

Second, we see that the “contingent-reward” group (red bar in Figure 1) chose more difficult problems compared to the control group. Rewarding people based on effort in the first part of the experiment made them seek more effort in the second part. 

Figure 1: task difficulty chosen by both groups in the transfer task

Together, these results suggest that effort has an “intrinsic” value for people: People avoid choosing the problems with the lowest difficulty even though the outcome is independent of the difficulty. More importantly, these results would give us an insight into how we could teach people (especially kids) to do more effortful things. Effort is valuable and people could learn that. This conclusion is reminiscent of the famous Persian poet Attar Neyshabouri who said:

Your value and worth are dependent on how much effort and knowledge you show