There is an increasing amount of evidence that during mental fatigue, shifts in motivation drive performance rather than reductions in finite mental energy. So far, studies that investigated such an approach have mainly focused on cognitive indicators of task engagement that were measured during controlled tasks, offering limited to no alternative stimuli. Therefore it remained unclear whether during fatigue, attention is diverted to stimuli that are unrelated to the task, or whether fatigued individuals still focused on the task but were unable to use their cognitive resources efficiently. With a combination of subjective, EEG, pupil, eye-tracking, and performance measures the present study investigated the influence of mental fatigue on a cognitive task which also contained alternative task-unrelated stimuli. With increasing time-on-task, task engagement and performance decreased, but there was no significant decrease in gaze toward the task-related stimuli. After increasing the task rewards, irrelevant rewarding stimuli where largely ignored, and task engagement and performance were restored, even though participants still reported to be highly fatigued. Overall, these findings support an explanation of less efficient processing of the task that is influenced by motivational cost/reward tradeoffs, rather than a depletion of a finite mental energy resource.

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ERIM Top-Core Articles
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Department of Industrial and Organizational Psychology

Hopstaken, J., van der Linden, D., Bakker, A., Kompier, M., & Leung, Y. K. (2016). Shifts in attention during mental fatigue. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 42(6), 878–889. doi:10.1037/xhp0000189