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26-09-2017 | Original Article | Uitgave 1/2018

Psychological Research 1/2018

Assessing the role of reward in task selection using a reward-based voluntary task switching paradigm

Psychological Research > Uitgave 1/2018
David A. Braun, Catherine M. Arrington


People exhibit a remarkable ability to both maintain controlled focus on executing a single task and flexibly shift between executing several tasks. Researchers studying human multitasking have traditionally focused on the cognitive control mechanisms that allow for such stable and flexible task execution, but there has been a recent interest in how cognitive control mechanisms drive the decision of task selection. The present research operationalizes a foraging analogy to investigate what factors drive the decision to either exploit task repetitions or explore task switches. A novel paradigm—reward-based voluntary task switching—ascribes point values to tasks where the overall goal is to accumulate points as quickly as possible. The reward structure generally rewards switching tasks, thereby juxtaposing the motivation to gain increased reward (by exploring task switches) against the motivation to perform quickly (by exploiting task repetitions). Results suggest that people are highly sensitive to changes in both reward and effort demands when making task selections, and that the task selection process is efficient and flexible. We argue that a cost–benefit mechanism might underlie decisions in multitasking contexts, whereby people compute task selections based on both the reward available for selecting a task and the effort necessary to execute a task.

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