Research shows complex relationship between the physical and cognitive drivers of motivation

In daily life, we constantly make choices about how much effort we are willing to invest in return for a reward. Think about one of those times now. Was that effort applied to thought processes, driven by cognitive motivation? Or was it perhaps something you had to physically do, driven by physical motivation?

We know that motivation of any kind is essential to applying effort. But what we haven’t understood is how, or whether, cognitive and physical motivation are linked. In particular, it is unknown whether intensive physical training is associated with higher motivation specific to that domain, or whether it is accompanied by corresponding changes in cognitive motivation.

Using computational modelling to study motivation in UK-based elite athletes, an international research team led by MICCN’s Dr Trevor Chong recently discovered that there is a complex relationship between cognitive and physical motivation.

“We tested a group of elite Oxford University rowers, and compared their behaviour to matched non-athletic controls,” explained Dr Chong. “We trained participants on two tasks involving cognitive or physical effort. We then asked each group how much effort they would be willing to invest for various levels of reward. Each participant made separate choices for the cognitive and physical tasks, which allowed us to computationally model motivation in each domain independently.”

Unsurprisingly, athletes were willing to exert greater amounts of physical effort than non-athletes. Critically, however, the overall pattern of cognitive effort-based decisions was different between the groups. This led Dr Chong and team to conclude that higher levels of physical motivation can be associated with altered patterns of motivation in the cognitive domain. In turn, this suggests that interventions aimed at improving motivation in one domain may carry over into others – a possibility that could have important implications for rehabilitative programs.

The full research paper, Computational modelling reveals distinct patterns of cognitive and physical motivation in elite athletes, is available to read on Nature’s website.

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