Research Work

Chronic motivational state interacts with task reward structure in dynamic decision-making

This paper is about motivation. Cooper and colleagues (2015) claim that the definition of motivation (i.e., “a simple increase in effortful cognitive processing”) is due for a revision.  The authors suggest that motivation is instead better thought of as something more dynamic – an interacting multilevel variable if you will.  This is exemplified in the theoretical lens that they adopted.

The theoretical lens through which Cooper & co. approached motivation is called regulatory fit. This regulatory fit is “achieved when the individual’s global motivational state (chronic or situational) aligns with the local motivational task framing” (p. 41).  When there is “fit”, there should be an increase in effortful cognitive processing and a decreased reliance on habitual cognitive processing. When there is a misfit, the opposite occurs.

To clarify, the global motivational states that Cooper & co. are speaking of are called promotion-focused (i.e., these individuals are more sensitive to potential gains) and prevention-focused (i.e., these individuals are more sensitive to potential losses).

Without overcomplicating things, people who a chronically promotion-focused will engage in effortful cognitive processing if a task is framed as promotion-focused (i.e., they are asked to maximize gains), while individuals who are chronically prevention-focused will engage in effortful cognitive processing if a task is framed as prevention-focused (they are asked to minimize losses).  They call this effortful cognitive processing goal-directed or the model-based system.  Meanwhile, if there is a misfit (e.g., a chronically promotion-focused person is asked to complete a prevention-focused task), people will opt towards the less costly habitual reward-based or model-free system of cognitive processing.

To test this motivational regulatory fit model, the authors recruited participants who were either chronically promotion or prevention focused to repeatedly (250 times) choose between two rewarding options for extracting a valuable resource: one will always provide larger immediate reward but decrease future rewards (called the decreasing option) and the other will always provide lower immediate reward but causes future rewards to increase (called the increasing option).  Meanwhile, participants were randomly assigned to either a gain-maximization condition (the extraction procedures produce varying gains of the resource that needs to be maximized) or loss-minimization condition (the extraction procedures produce a varying output of a dangerous by-product that needs to be minimized). See figure below for how this was shown to participants (gain-maximization on the left, loss-minimization on the right).

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 15.11.26

What were the most important results?  In the gain-maximization condition, promotion-focused folks performed better than the prevention-focused folks, and in the loss-minimization condition, prevention-focused folks performed better than the promotion-focused folks.  Even within the regulatory focus groups, the alignment of regulatory focus proved beneficial.  Promotion-focused folk performed better in the gain-maximization condition and prevention-focused folk performed better (albeit non-significantly) in the loss-minimization condition.  The regulatory fit hypothesis of motivation was thus supported.  Additional regression analyses reinforced these findings by showing that that relatively promotion-focused folk performed better in gain-maximization and worse at loss-minimization.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 15.20.13.png


Cooper, J. A. Worthy, D. A. & Maddox, W. T. (2015). Chronic motivational state interacts with task reward structure in dynamic decision-making. Cognitive Psychology, 83, 40-53.

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