Research Group
in Analytic Philosophy

Effort awareness, effort control, and the evolution of flexible skill

    Wayne Christensen (Warwick)

Date: 21 October 2020

Time: 15:00

Place: Online


I examine recent theories of physical and mental effort in individual and joint action, and argue that effort awareness and control are likely to be more complex than these theories have so far recognised. ‘Cost-benefit’ theories of mental effort, which see subjective effort as tracking opportunity cost of some some kind, have gained popularity at the expense of an older energy-based theory, which claimed that mental effort tracks the depletion of blood glucose. However, cost-benefit theories fail to capture central features of sense of effort and effort control; in particular, regulation of the intensity of effort. A revised energy theory provides a more plausible basis
for a core theory of mental effort, and offers the potential for an integrated account of mental and physical effort. Nevertheless, a core energy-based theory must be extended to capture the complexity of effort allocation problems, and I explore some of this richness. I make a case that the extreme flexibility of human skill learning hinges on the sophistication of these effort allocation abilities. I extend this picture by briefly considering the evolution of human cooperation. Fitness interdependence theory suggests that cooperation has been strongly favoured in human evolution, however it is plausible that there was selection for a high degree of discrimination about how to cooperate. Effort awareness and control may have played a critical role in supporting such selectivity in cooperation.