Dispositional individual differences in cognitive effort investment: Establishing the core construct

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review


BACKGROUND: Individuals tend to avoid effortful tasks, regardless of whether they are physical or mental in nature. Recent experimental evidence is suggestive of individual differences in the dispositional willingness to invest cognitive effort in goal-directed behavior. The traits need for cognition (NFC) and self-control are related to behavioral measures of cognitive effort discounting and demand avoidance, respectively. Given that these traits are only moderately related, the question arises whether they reflect a common core factor underlying cognitive effort investment. If so, the common core of both traits might be related to behavioral measures of effort discounting in a more systematic fashion. To address this question, we aimed at specifying a core construct of cognitive effort investment that reflects dispositional differences in the willingness and tendency to exert effortful control.

METHODS: We conducted two studies (N = 613 and N = 244) with questionnaires related to cognitive motivation and effort investment including assessment of NFC, intellect, self-control and effortful control. We first calculated Pearson correlations followed by two mediation models regarding intellect and its separate aspects, seek and conquer, as mediators. Next, we performed a confirmatory factor analysis of a hierarchical model of cognitive effort investment as second-order latent variable. First-order latent variables were cognitive motivation reflecting NFC and intellect, and effortful self-control reflecting self-control and effortful control. Finally, we calculated Pearson correlations between factor scores of the latent variables and general self-efficacy as well as traits of the Five Factor Model of Personality for validation purposes.

RESULTS: Our findings support the hypothesized correlations between the assessed traits, where the relationship of NFC and self-control is specifically mediated via goal-directedness. We established and replicated a hierarchical factor model of cognitive motivation and effortful self-control that explains the shared variance of the first-order factors by a second-order factor of cognitive effort investment.

CONCLUSIONS: Taken together, our results integrate disparate literatures on cognitive motivation and self-control and provide a basis for further experimental research on the role of dispositional individual differences in goal-directed behavior and cost-benefit-models.


Original languageEnglish
Article number10
Number of pages14
JournalBMC Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jan 2021

External IDs

PubMed 33482925
PubMedCentral PMC7821547
Scopus 85099942666
ORCID /0000-0002-9426-5397/work/141543197
ORCID /0000-0002-6673-9591/work/142242367
ORCID /0000-0002-6418-6479/work/142247564



  • Adult, Cognition/physiology, Female, Humans, Individuality, Male, Models, Psychological, Motivation, Personality, Self-Control, Surveys and Questionnaires