Cognitive Effort Is Modulated Outside of the Explicit Awareness of Conflict Frequency: Evidence From Pupillometry

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Classic theories of cognitive control conceptualized controlled processes as slow, strategic, and willful, with automatic processes being fast and effortless. The context-specific proportion compatibility (CSPC) effect, the reduction in the compatibility effect in a context (e.g., location) associated with a high relative to low likelihood of conflict, challenged classic theories by demonstrating fast and flexible control that appears to operate outside of conscious awareness. Two theoretical questions yet to be addressed are whether the CSPC effect is accompanied by context-dependent variation in effort, and whether the exertion of effort depends on explicit awareness of context-specific task demands. To address these questions, pupil diameter was measured during a CSPC paradigm. Stimuli were randomly presented in either a mostly compatible location or a mostly incompatible location. Replicating prior research, the CSPC effect was found. The novel finding was that pupil diameter was greater in the mostly incompatible location compared to the mostly compatible location, despite participants’ lack of awareness of context-specific task demands. Additionally, this difference occurred regardless of trial type or a preceding switch in location. These patterns support the view that context (location) dictates selection of optimal attentional settings in the CSPC paradigm, and varying levels of effort and performance accompany these settings. Theoretically, these patterns imply that cognitive control may operate fast, flexibly, and outside of awareness, but not effortlessly.

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