A Representation of Effort in Decision-Making and Motor Control

Reza Shadmehr, Helen J. Huang, Alaa A. Ahmed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Given two rewarding stimuli, animals tend to choose the more rewarding (or less effortful) option. However, they also move faster toward that stimulus [1-5]. This suggests that reward and effort not only affect decision-making, they also influence motor control [6, 7]. How does the brain compute the effort requirements of a task? Here, we considered data acquired during walking, reaching, flying, or isometric force production. In analyzing the decision-making and motor-control behaviors of various animals, we considered the possibility that the brain may estimate effort objectively, via the metabolic energy consumed to produce the action. We measured the energetic cost of reaching and found that, like walking, it was convex in time, with a global minimum, implying that there existed a movement speed that minimized effort. However, reward made it worthwhile to be energetically inefficient. Using a framework in which utility of an action depended on reward and energetic cost, both discounted in time, we found that it was possible to account for a body of data in which animals were free to choose how to move (reach slow or fast), as well as what to do (walk or fly, produce force F1 or F2). We suggest that some forms of decision-making and motor control may share a common utility in which the brain represents the effort associated with performing an action objectively via its metabolic energy cost and then, like reward, temporally discounts it as a function of movement duration. Both decisions and movements are influenced by reward and effort, suggesting that they may share a common utility. Shadmehr et al. demonstrate that a utility in which effort is objectively represented as energetic cost and discounted in time can account for both the choices animals make and the vigor of their movements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalCurrent Biology
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Mar 1 2016


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