The cultural depiction of willpower and habit as opposing forces is as old as time and as prevalent as it is false. Someone who succumbs to the temptation of an unhealthy food craving, while on a diet, is told that he either had a deficiency in willpower (e.g., succumbing) or fell prey to a learned habit (e.g., fulfilling cravings). However, this framing ignores how contextual cues and past experiences could have influenced his ability to flexibly modulate his response in line with internal goals (e.g., diet) and situational demands (e.g., hunger, boredom), a set of cognitive mechanisms broadly referred to as cognitive control. The goal of my research therefore is to examine how memory guides control—namely, how past experiences and goals can shape our responses to environmental demands, particularly those that require a great deal of attentional focus.
One possibility is that people approach a new situation or environment with a heightened sense of attention, because similar environments have proven difficult in the past. In order for this mechanism to work, people would need to bind together a specific control state (e.g., heightened focus of attention) and their memory of the attentionally demanding environment. Many studies have indeed shown that probabilistic stimuli implicitly trigger the retrieval of particular control states, demonstrating how learned contextual cues can guide strategic adjustment to attentional demands. In a recent extension of this literature, I found that people can learn to associate specific stimuli with a state of high attentional selectivity and that these associations can transfer to related stimuli (invited revision under review, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review). This suggests that people can generalize cognitive strategies across similar contexts. You can see my Psychonomics poster presentation above and read more about this work on my publications page.
In another line of work, I investigate the consequences of learned cognitive flexibility on memory. Specifically, if people learn to link particular stimuli with specific responses, do they subsequently remember these stimuli less depending on certain stimulus attributes, or does how they reacted or how fast the environment changed matter more? Can we learn to adapt our cognitive flexibility to match changing attentional demands, and does this affect how well we are later able to remember such volatile environments?
At a broad level, these studies improve our understanding of how associative and control processes interact to optimize behavior. Advancing our knowledge of the interaction between control and memory has important implications for understanding both healthy and disordered cognition in a variety of clinical conditions in which cognitive control is impaired, as well as everyday multi-tasking and cognitive flexibility.
Prior to my current research at Duke, I was also involved in learning and motivation research focused on effort discounting and intelligence mindset.
In one study, we examined whether choosing to exert effort impacts how we feel about exerting effort. In a physical effort context, we found that behavioral preferences and neural activity in the “reward” system were consistent with people discounting effort as a cost, leading to increased valuation of outcomes following low effort. We also showed an effect of choice on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, whereby neural activity predicted the likelihood of avoiding high effort trials.
In another study, we examined whether we learn differently from negative feedback if we believe that intelligence is a fixed versus malleable trait, and whether this changes depending on how competent we feel. We hypothesized that when their competence was threatened, negative feedback would be interpreted as more punitive for people who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait. As expected, people with fixed mindsets performed worse when their competence was threatened. People with greater fixed mindset beliefs also showed greater sensitivity to negative feedback, with larger punishment responses in the striatum (the brain’s “reward” system). This hypersensitivity was present even when the feedback context de-emphasized the evaluative sting of negative feedback, and was likewise strongest when their competence was threatened.
These studies have important implications for societal outcomes, whether by understanding more about effort valuation to inform treatment for depression or the motivational factors that affect classroom engagement and achievement.
If you have any questions about my research, please feel free to contact me at christina.bejjani AT duke.edu. Thanks so much for visiting!