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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 December 2013
Why does performing certain tasks cause the aversive experience of mental effort and concomitant deterioration in task performance? One explanation posits a physical resource that is depleted over time. We propose an alternative explanation that centers on mental representations of the costs and benefits associated with task performance. Specifically, certain computational mechanisms, especially those associated with executive function, can be deployed for only a limited number of simultaneous tasks at any given moment. Consequently, the deployment of these computational mechanisms carries an opportunity cost – that is, the next-best use to which these systems might be put. We argue that the phenomenology of effort can be understood as the felt output of these cost/benefit computations. In turn, the subjective experience of effort motivates reduced deployment of these computational mechanisms in the service of the present task. These opportunity cost representations, then, together with other cost/benefit calculations, determine effort expended and, everything else equal, result in performance reductions. In making our case for this position, we review alternative explanations for both the phenomenology of effort associated with these tasks and for performance reductions over time. Likewise, we review the broad range of relevant empirical results from across sub-disciplines, especially psychology and neuroscience. We hope that our proposal will help to build links among the diverse fields that have been addressing similar questions from different perspectives, and we emphasize ways in which alternative models might be empirically distinguished.