Learning to Overexert Cognitive Control in a Stroop Task

Laura Bustamante, Falk Lieder, Sebastian Musslick, Amitai Shenhav, Jonathan Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


How do people learn when to allocate how much cognitive control to which task? According to the Learned Value of Control (LVOC) model, people learn to predict the value of alternative control allocations from features of a situation. This suggests that people may generalize the value of control learned in one situation to others with shared features, even when demands for control are different. This makes the intriguing prediction that what a person learned in one setting could cause them to misestimate the need for, and potentially overexert, control in another setting, even if this harms their performance. To test this prediction, we had participants perform a novel variant of the Stroop task in which, on each trial, they could choose to either name the color (more control-demanding) or read the word (more automatic). Only one of these tasks was rewarded each trial and could be predicted by one or more stimulus features (the color and/or word). Participants first learned colors and then words that predicted the rewarded task. Then, we tested how these learned feature associations transferred to novel stimuli with some overlapping features. The stimulus-task-reward associations were designed so that for certain combinations of stimuli, transfer of learned feature associations would incorrectly predict that more highly rewarded task would be color-naming, even though the actually rewarded task was word-reading and therefore did not require engaging control. Our results demonstrated that participants overexerted control for these stimuli, providing support for the feature-based learning mechanism described by the LVOC model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)453-471
Number of pages19
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Cognitive control
  • Cognitive plasticity
  • Metacognitive reinforcement learning
  • Self-control failure


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