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Parietal Alpha Oscillations: Cognitive Load and Mental Toughness or, in plain English, Why, when we talk about “effort”, we might not truly understand it.

A 2022 research paper using the MTQ48 mental toughness questionnaire and the Ravens SPM test. It examined the relationship between encoding, retention, and recognition in the Sternberg task in relation to intelligence and mental toughness.

It’s a tough read – – but it has some important findings for the practitioner and poses some important questions

We summarise these here:

  1. Effort is a multifunctional concept. When we talk about “making an effort” we often talk about it as if it is “one thing” – unidimensional. The study suggests, reasonably so, that effort has many aspects and that some aspects are limiting. When engaged in tasks with many stages, we might find we are capable of making a special effort (sometimes call a discretionary effort) to finish or complete the task (e.g., assembling something). That type of effort can be significant. When we engage in other processing tasks such as data gathering etc it sees that no matter how much you try there is a limit to the amount and type of effort you can give.
  2. Not so much of a surprise, cognition and motivation are separate when comes to performance. In other words, achievement is the product of mental toughness and ability. The study also showed that measures of intelligence do not correlate with levels of mental toughness. The mentally tough can be intelligent or not. Similarly for the mentally sensitive. This is important for a whole variety of reasons – not least diversity. If those who are successful are mentally tough but not the brightest in the bunch, then talent management processes might not be identifying the right people for a particular purpose. Similarly, there may be incredible intellectual talent hidden within the mentally sensitive corners of the organisation.
  3. The study found, contrary to expectation that the more mentally sensitive appeared to make more effort at the tasks given to them than did the more mentally tough. This is bringing perception into the picture. A task may be challenging but a mentally tough individual may be comfortable taking up the challenge and won’t necessarily feel they are making so much of an effort. A more mentally sensitive individual will think even the simplest task is demanding – everything feels like it needs an effort. This has implications for burnout. If a mentally sensitive person feels that everything is demanding they may use up all their energy which is then not available when they might really need it for the important (and not the urgent) task that has just wiped out their reserves. A mentally tough individual might coast through the same tasks. The research introduces the idea that there is a motivational/emotional response to task difficulty. It’s not task difficulty that matters it’s the perception of the difficulty of the task that matters. As Professor Peter Clough found in his doctoral research on marathon runners, most people would see running a marathon as a difficult and stressful task. But most marathon runners actually like running. They see marathons as something to enjoy and not so demanding.
  4. Finally, the study showed that the more mentally tough had faster reaction times than the more mentally sensitive. They weren’t necessarily any more accurate, they were just quicker.

In summary, the research is provoking thinking about the way we understand and make effort and about the way we use our energy. The latter is a subject of some interest to our colleague Dr John Perry.

How we use our energy matters.  If we use up our energy when it is not really important to do so then we might not have the energy left to deal with the tasks that are really demanding.

It seems that the more mentally tough have an advantage here.

As employers begin to be more interested in the welfare and mental health of their staff there are useful pointers here.

As a group of practitioners and academics, we are very interested in the practical implications of research and in being able to follow an evidence-based approach to our work. There is a lot of good research and evidence out there which is not easily accessed by practitioners who are professional and keen to grow their knowledge and understanding.

To that end, we maintain a library of important research which is available to licensed users, partners and associates.

We believe the mental toughness concept is one of the most important developments for practitioners – providing a remarkable resource to aid their work and enabling them to explore a vast array of issues with clients.

For information about becoming a licensed user of the MTQ suite of measures contact:

The MTQPlus measure is available in 14 languages, accessible to more than 2/3rds of the world’s population.

Completion of the AQR Licensed user training programme is recognised by EMCC and ICF for CPD purposes.