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

Abstract

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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Notes

  1. While Fröber and Dreisbach (2016), among others, have implemented reward for task execution during VTS, to our knowledge, rVTS is a novel approach in that it is the first to implement rewards for task selection in a VTS environment.

  2. Participants also completed the behavioral inhibition/activation system questionnaire (BIS/BAS; Carver & White, 1994), with the idea being that reward sensitivity might predict behavior in rVTS. We also collected age and gender demographic information. However, none of these factors proved to be significant predictors of task selections in rVTS and are not included in the analyses presented here.

  3. We stress that, in rVTS, participants only ever faced possible reductions to prospective gains and never true loss of their acquired resources (i.e., points); the latter is the true conception of “loss” invoked by prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).

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Correspondence to Catherine M. Arrington.

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Funding

While this research was not supported by a grant from a funding agency, Kate Arrington was employed by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) as a Visiting Scientist, Engineer, or Educator (VSEE) and her time spent in writing the manuscript and mentoring the research was supported by the NSF as part of her VSEE position.

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We declare no conflicts of interest in the conduct or reporting on the present research. We agree to make raw data available if requested.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The protocols for these experiments were approved by the Lehigh University Institutional Review Board.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Braun, D.A., Arrington, C.M. Assessing the role of reward in task selection using a reward-based voluntary task switching paradigm. Psychological Research 82, 54–64 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-017-0919-x

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