Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics

, Volume 71, Issue 8, pp 1807–1824 | Cite as

Subjective aspects of cognitive control at different stages of processing

  • Ezequiel Morsella
  • Lilian E. Wilson
  • Christopher C. Berger
  • Mikaela Honhongva
  • Adam Gazzaley
  • John A. Bargh
Research Articles


Although research on cognitive control has addressed the effects that different forms of cognitive interference have on behavior and the activities of certain brain regions, until recently, the effects of interference on subjective experience have not been addressed. We demonstrate that, at the level of the individual trial, participants can reliably introspect the subjective aspects (e.g., perceptions of difficulty, competition, and control) of responding in interference paradigms. Similar subjective effects were obtained for both expressed and unexpressed (subvocalized) actions. Few participants discerned the source of these effects. These basic findings illuminate aspects of cognitive control and cognitive effort. In addition, these data have implications for the study of response interference in affect and self-control, and they begin to address theories regarding the function of consciousness.


  1. Baker, T. B., Piper, M. E., McCarthy, D. E., Majeskie, M. R., & Fiore, M. C. (2004). Addiction motivation reformulated: An affective processing model of negative reinforcement. Psychological Review, 111, 33–51.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Bargh, J. A., & Morsella, E. (2008). The unconscious mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 73–79.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Bartley, S. H., & Chute, E. (1947). Fatigue and impairment in man. New York: McGraw-Hill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M. T., & Tice, D. M. (2009). Free willpower: A limited resource theory of volition, choice, and self-regulation. In E. Morsella, J. A. Bargh, & P. M. Gollwitzer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of human action (pp. 487–508). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (Eds.) (2004). Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  6. Block, N. (2007). Consciousness, accessibility, and the mesh between psychology and neuroscience. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 30, 481–548.Google Scholar
  7. Botvinick, M. M. (2007). Conflict monitoring and decision making: Reconciling two perspectives on anterior cingulate function. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 356–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Botvinick, M. M., Braver, T. S., Barch, D. M., Carter, C. S., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). Conflict monitoring and cognitive control. Psychological Review, 108, 624–652.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown, J. W., & Braver, T. S. (2005). Learned predictions of error likelihood in the anterior cingulate cortex. Science, 307, 1118–1121.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Buzsáki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the brain. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cohen, J. D., Dunbar, K., & McClelland, J. L. (1990). On the control of automatic processes: A parallel distributed processing account of the Stroop effect. Psychological Review, 97, 332–361.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Cohen, J. [D.], MacWhinney, B., Flatt, M., & Provost, J. (1993). PsyScope: An interactive graphic system for designing and controlling experiments in the psychology laboratory using Macintosh computers. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 25, 257–271.Google Scholar
  13. Coles, M. G. H., Gratton, G., Bashore, T. R., Eriksen, C. W., & Donchin, E. (1985). A psychophysiological investigation of the continuous flow model of human information processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 11, 529–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Corallo, G., Sackur, J., Dehaene, S., & Sigman, M. (2008). Limits on introspection: Distorted subjective time during the dual-task bottleneck. Psychological Science, 19, 1110–1117.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Crick, F., & Koch, C. (2003). A framework for consciousness. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 119–126.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Curtis, C. E., & D’Esposito, M. (2009). The inhibition of unwanted actions. In E. Morsella, J. A. Bargh, & P. M. Gollwitzer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of human action (pp. 72–97). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Eriksen, B. A., & Eriksen, C. W. (1974). Effects of noise letters upon the identification of a target letter in a nonsearch task. Perception & Psychophysics, 16, 143–149.Google Scholar
  18. Eriksen, C. W., & Schultz, D. W. (1979). Information processing in visual search: A continuous flow conception and experimental results. Perception & Psychophysics, 25, 249–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fernandez-Duque, D., Baird, J. A., & Posner, M. I. (2000). Executive attention and metacognitive regulation. Consciousness & Cognition, 9, 288–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fischer, T., Langner, R., Birbaumer, N., & Brocke, B. (2008). Arousal and attention: Self-chosen stimulation optimizes cortical excitability and minimizes compensatory effort. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 1443–1453.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Gazzaley, A., Cooney, J. W., Rissman, J., & D’Esposito, M. (2005). Top-down suppression deficit underlies working memory impairment in normal aging. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 1298–1300.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Gazzaley, A., & D’Esposito, M. (2007). Unifying prefrontal cortex function: Executive control, neural networks and top-down modulation. In B. L. Miller & J. L. Cummings (Eds.), The human frontal lobes: Functions and disorders (2nd ed., pp. 187–206). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  23. Grahek, N. (2007). Feeling pain and being in pain (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  24. Gray, J. A. (1995). The contents of consciousness: A neuropsychological conjecture. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 18, 659–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jackendoff, R. S. (1990). Consciousness and the computational mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  26. Jacoby, L. L., Kelley, C. M., & Dywan, J. (1989). Memory attributions. In H. L. Roediger III & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), Varieties of memory and consciousness: Essays in honour of Endel Tulving (pp. 391–422). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  27. Johnson, M. K., & Raye, C. L. (1981). Reality monitoring. Psychological Review, 88, 67–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  29. Kang, Y. N., Morsella, E., Shamosh, N. A., Bargh, J. A., & Gray, J. R. (2008). The essence of subjective conflict during self-control: Neural correlates of sustaining incompatible intentions. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, San Francisco.Google Scholar
  30. Lashley, K. S. (1951). The problem of serial order in behavior. In L. A. Jeffress (Ed.), Cerebral mechanisms in behavior: The Hixon symposium (pp. 112–146). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  31. Libet, B. (2004). Mind time: The temporal factor in consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Livnat, A., & Pippenger, N. (2006). An optimal brain can be composed of conflicting agents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 3198–3202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. MacLeod, C. M., & MacDonald, P. A. (2000). Interdimensional interference in the Stroop effect: Uncovering the cognitive and neural anatomy of attention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 383–391.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Mayr, U. (2004). Conflict, consciousness, and control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 145–148.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Mayr, U., Awh, E., & Laurey, P. (2003). Conflict adaptation effects in the absence of executive control. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 450–452.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. McGuigan, F. J. (Ed.) (1966). Thinking: Studies of covert language processes. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.Google Scholar
  37. McGurk, H., & MacDonald, J. (1976). Hearing lips and seeing voices. Nature, 264, 746–748.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Metcalfe, J., Funnell, M., & Gazzaniga, M. S. (1995). Right hemisphere memory superiority: Studies of a split-brain patient. Psychological Science, 6, 157–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3–19.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Miller, N. E. (1959). Liberalization of basic S—R concepts: Extensions to conflict behavior, motivation, and social learning. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science. Study 1: Conceptual and systematic. Vol. 2: General systematic formulations, learning, and special processes (pp. 196–292). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  41. Morsella, E. (2005). The function of phenomenal states: Supramodular interaction theory. Psychological Review, 112, 1000–1021.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Morsella, E. (2009). The mechanisms of human action: Introduction and background. In E. Morsella, J. A. Bargh, & P. M. Gollwitzer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of human action (pp. 1–32). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Morsella, E., Gray, J. R., Krieger, S. C., & Bargh, J. A. (2009). The essence of conscious conflict: Subjective effects of sustaining incompatible intentions. Emotion, 9, 717–728.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Morsella, E., & Krauss, R. M. (2005). Muscular activity in the arm during lexical retrieval: Implications for gesture—speech theories. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 34, 415–427.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Morsella, E., Rigby, T., & Gazzaley, A. (2009). A working-memory version of the flanker task yields traditional perceptual- and responseinterference effects. Unpublished manuscript, San Francisco State University.Google Scholar
  46. Mulert, C., Menzinger, E., Leicht, G., Pogarell, O., & Hegerl, U. (2005). Evidence for a close relationship between conscious effort and anterior cingulate cortex activity. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 56, 65–80.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Naccache, L., Dehaene, S., Cohen, L., Habert, M.-O., Guichart-Gomez, E., Galanaud, D., & Willer, J.-C. (2005). Effortless control: Executive attention and conscious feeling of mental effort are dissociable. Neuropsychologia, 43, 1318–1328.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review, 83, 435–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Norman, D. A., & Shallice, T. (1980). Attention to action: Willed and automatic control of behavior. In R. J. Davidson, G. E. Schwartz, & D. Shapiro (Eds.), Consciousness and self-regulation (pp. 1–18). New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  51. Pickering, M., & Garrod, S. (in press). Prediction and embodiment in dialogue. European Journal of Social Psychology.Google Scholar
  52. Preston, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Elbow grease: When action feels like work. In E. Morsella, J. A. Bargh, & P. M. Gollwitzer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of human action (pp. 569–586). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Roelofs, A., Meyer, A. S., & Levelt, W. J. M. (1995). Interaction between semantic and orthographic factors in conceptually driven naming: Comment on Starreveld and La Heij (1995). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 22, 246–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Rosen, Z. V., McGuire, J., & Botvinick, M. M. (2007). Is mental effort aversive? Some behavioral and psychophysiological evidence. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, New York.Google Scholar
  55. Rosenbaum, D. A. (2005). The Cinderella of psychology: The neglect of motor control in the science of mental life and behavior. American Psychologist, 60, 308–317.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. Roser, M., & Gazzaniga, M. S. (2004). Automatic brains—Interpretive minds. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 56–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Sanders, A. F. (1983). Towards a model of stress and human performance. Acta Psychologica, 53, 61–97.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Simon, J. R., Hinrichs, J. V., & Craft, J. L. (1970). Auditory S—R compatibility: Reaction time as a function of ear—hand correspondence and ear—response-location correspondence. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 86, 97–102.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Stevens, S. S. (1956). The direct estimation of sensory magnitudes: Loudness. American Journal of Psychology, 69, 1–25.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. Stroop, J. R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18, 643–662.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Tinbergen, N. (1952). Derived activities: Their causation, biological significance, origin, and emancipation during evolution. Quarterly Review of Biology, 27, 1–32.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. van Veen, V., & Carter, C. S. (2006). Conflict and cognitive control in the brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 237–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. van Veen, V., Cohen, J. D., Botvinick, M. M., Stenger, V. A., & Carter, C. S. (2001). Anterior cingulate cortex, conflict monitoring, and levels of processing. NeuroImage, 14, 1302–1308.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Eds. & Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  66. Winkielman, P., Schwarz, N., Fazendeiro, T. A., & Reber, R. (2003). The hedonic marking of processing fluency: Implications for evaluative judgment. In J. Musch & K. C. Klauer (Eds.), The psychology of evaluation: Affective processes in cognition and emotion (pp. 189–217). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  67. Woodworth, R. S., & Schlosberg, H. (1954). Experimental psychology (Rev. ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ezequiel Morsella
    • 1
    • 2
  • Lilian E. Wilson
    • 3
  • Christopher C. Berger
    • 1
  • Mikaela Honhongva
    • 3
  • Adam Gazzaley
    • 2
  • John A. Bargh
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologySan Francisco State UniversitySan Francisco
  2. 2.University of CaliforniaSan Francisco
  3. 3.Yale UniversityNew Haven

Personalised recommendations