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A reference-based theory of motivation and effort allocation

Rigoli, F. ORCID: 0000-0003-2233-934X & Pezzulo, G. (2022). A reference-based theory of motivation and effort allocation. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, doi: 10.3758/s13423-022-02135-8


Motivation is key for performance in domains such as work, sport, and learning. Research has established that motivation and the willingness to invest effort generally increase as a function of reward. However, this view struggles to explain some empirical observations—for example, in the domain of sport, athletes sometimes appear to lose motivation when playing against weak opponents—this despite objective rewards being high. This and similar evidence highlight the role of subjective value in motivation and effort allocation. To capture this, here, we advance a novel theory and computational model where motivation and effort allocation arise from reference-based evaluation processes. Our proposal argues that motivation (and the ensuing willingness to exert effort) stems from subjective value, which in turns depends on one’s standards about performance and on the confidence about these standards. In a series of simulations, we show that the model explains puzzling motivational dynamics and associated feelings. Crucially, the model identifies realistic standards (i.e., those matching one’s own actual ability) as those more beneficial for motivation and performance. On this basis, the model establishes a normative solution to the problem of optimal allocation of effort, analogous to the optimal allocation of neural and computational resources as in efficient coding.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit
Publisher Keywords: Motivation, Effort, Reference-based model, Subjective value
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
R Medicine > RC Internal medicine > RC0321 Neuroscience. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution International Public License 4.0.

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