The Psychology of Effort

There are three distinguishable views regarding the psychical quales experienced in cases of effort. One is the conception that effort, as such, is strictly "spiritual" or "intellectual," unmediated by any sensational element whatever; it being admitted, of course, that the expression or putting forth of effort, in so far as it occurs through the muscular system, has sensational correlates. This view shades into the next in so far as its upholders separate "physical'' from "moral" effort, and admit that in the former the consciousness of effort is more or less sensational in character, while in the latter remaining wholly non-sensuous in quality. The third view declines to accept the distinction made between moral and physical effort as a distinction of genesis, and holds that all sense of effort is sensationally (peripherally) determined. For example, the first theory, in its extreme or typical form, would say that when we put forth effort, whether to lift a stone, to solve a refractory problem, or to resist temptation, the sense of effort is the consciousness of pure psychical activity, to be carefully distinguished from any sense of the muscular and organic changes occurring from the actual putting forth of effort, the latter being a return wave of resulting sensations. The second view would discriminate between the cases alluded to, drawing a line between effort in lifting the stone, which is considered as itself due to sense of strain and tension arising from the actual putting forth of energy (and hence sensuously conditioned), and the two other cases. Various writers would, however; apparently draw the line at different places, some conceding the sense of effort in intellectual attention to be sensational, mediated through feeling the contraction of muscles of forehead, fixation of eyes, changes in breathing, etc. Others would make the attention, as such, purely spiritual (i.e., in this use, nonsensational), independently of whether the outcome is intellectual or 

(44) moral in value. But the third view declares unambiguously that the sense of effort is, in any case, due to the organic reverberations of the act itself, the "muscular,'' visceral, and breathing sensations. [1]

In the following paper I propose, for the most part, to approach this question indirectly rather than directly, my underlying conviction being that the difference between the "sensational" and "spiritual" schools is due to the fact that one is thinking of a distinctly psychological fact, the way in which the sense or consciousness of effort is mediated, while the other is, in reality, discussing a logical or moral problem -- the interpretation of the category of effort, the value which it has as a part of experience. To the point that the distinction between "physical'' and "spiritual" effort is one of interpretation, of function, rather than of kind of existence, I shall return to the sequel. Meantime, I wish to present a certain amount of introspective evidence for the position that the sense of effort (as distinguished from the fact or the category) is sensationally mediated; and then to point out that if this is admitted, the real problem of the psychology of effort is only stated, not solved; this problem being to find the sensational differentia between the cases in which there is, and those in which there is not, a sense of effort.

The following material was gathered, it may be said, not with reference to the conscious examination of the case in hand, but in the course of a study of the facts of choice; this indirect origin makes it, I believe, all the more valuable. The cases not quoted are identical in kind with those quoted, there being no reports of a contrary sense. ''In deciding a question that had to be settled in five minutes, I found myself turned in the chair, till I was sitting on its edge, with the left 

(45) arm on the back of the chair, hand clenched so tightly that the marks on the nails were left in the palm, breathing so rapid that it was oppressive, winking rapid, jaws clenched, leaning far forward and supporting my head by the right hand. The question was whether I should go to the city that day. When I decided to go I felt more like resting than starting."

The next instance relates to an attempt to recall lines of poetry formerly memorized. "There is a feeling of strain. This I found to be immediately dependent upon a hard knitting of the brows and forehead -- especially upon a fixing and converging of the eyes. At the same time there is a general contraction of the system as a whole. The breathing is quiet, slow, and regular, save where emotional accompaniments break it up. The meter is usually kept by a slight movement of the toes in the shoes or by a finger of the hand. As the recollection proceeds, there is a sensation of peering, of viewing the whole scene. The fixation exhausts the eyes much more than hard reading."

The succeeding instance relates to the effort involved in understanding an author. "First, I am conscious of drawing myself together, my forehead contracts, my eyes and ears seem to draw themselves in and shut themselves off. There is tension of the muscles of limbs. Secondly, a feeling of movement or plunge forward occurs. My particular sensations differ in different cases, but all have this in common: First, a feeling of tension, and then movement forward. Sometimes the forward movement is accompanied by a muscular feeling in the arms as if throwing things to right and left, in clearing a road to a desired object. Sometimes it is a feeling of climbing, and planting my foot firmly as on a height attained." [2]

Now of course I am far from thinking that these cases, or any number of such cases, prove the sensational character of the consciousness of effort. Logically, the statements are all open to the interpretation that we are concerned here with products or incidental sequelae of effort, rather than with its 

(46) essence. But I have yet to find a student who, with growing power of introspection, did not report that to him such sensations seemed to constitute the "feel" of effort. Moreover, the cumulative force of such statements is very great, if not logically conclusive. Many state that if they relax their muscles entirely it is impossible to keep up the effort. Sensations frequently mentioned are those connected with breathing -- stopping the respiration, breathing more rapidly, contracted chest and throat; others are contraction of brow holding head fixed, or twisting it, compression of lips,! clenching of fist, contraction of jaws, sensations in pit of stomach, goneness in legs, shoulders higher, head lower than usual, fogginess or mistiness in visual field, trying to see something which eludes vision, etc.

But upon the whole I intend rather to assume that the sense of effort is, in all its forms, sensationally conditioned. We have in this fact (if it be a fact) no adequate psychology of effort, but only the preliminary of such theory. The conception up to this point has, for theoretical purposes, negative value only; it is useful in overthrowing other theories of effort, but throws no positive light upon its nature. The problem of interest, as soon as the rival theories are dismissed, comes to be this: Granted the sensational character of the consciousness of effort, what is its specific differentia? What we wish now to know is what set of sensory values marks off experiences of effort from those closely resembling, but not felt as cases of effort. So far as I know this question has not been raised.

How then does, say, a case of perception with effort differ from a case of "easy" or effortless perception? The difference, I repeat, shall be wholly in sensory quale; but in what sensory quale?

At this point a reversion to a different point of view, and the introduction of a different order of ideas is likely to occur. We may be told, as an explanation of the difference, that in one case we have a feeling of activity, a feeling of the putting forth of energy. I found the persons who in special cases have become thoroughly convinced of the sensational quality of all consciousness of effort, will make this answer. The 

(47) explanation is, I think, that the point of view unconsciously shifts from effort as a psychical fact, as fact of direct consciousness, to effort as an objective or teleological fact. We stop thinking of the sense of effort, and think of the reference or import of the experience. Effort, as putting forth of energy, is involved equally in all psychical occurrences. It exists with a sense of ease just as much as with a sense of strain. There may be more of it in cases of extreme absorption and interest where no effort is felt, than in cases of extreme sense of effort. Compare, for example, the psychophysical energy put forth in listening to a symphony, or in viewing a picture gallery, with that exercised in trying to fix a small moving speck on the wall; compare the energy, that is, as objectively measured. In the former case, the whole being may be intensely active, and yet there may be, at the time, absolutely no consciousness of effort or strain. The latter may be, objectively, a very trivial activity, and yet the consciousness of strain may be the chief thing in the conscious experience. In some cases it seems almost as if the relation between effort as an objective fact, and effort as a psychical fact were an inverse one. If a monotonous physical movement be indefinitely repeated, it will generally be found that as long as ''activity" is put forth, and accomplishes something objectively (as measured in some dynometric register), there is little sense of effort. Let the energy be temporarily exhausted and action practically cease, then the sense of effort will be at its maximum. Let a wave of energy recur, and there is at once a sense of lightness, of ease. And in all cases, the sense of effort and ease follows, never precedes, the change in activity as objectively measured.

We are not concerned, accordingly, with any question of the existence or non-existence of spiritual activity, or even of psychophysical activity. The reference to this, as furnishing the differentia of cases of consciousness of effort from those of ease, is not so much false as irrelevant.

Where, then, shall we locate the discriminative factor? Take the simplest possible case: I try to make out the exact 

(48) form, or the nature, of a faint marking on a piece of paper a few feet off, at about the limit of distinct vision. What is the special sensation carrier of the sense of effort here? Introspectively I believe the answer is very simple. In the case of felt effort, certain sensory quales, usually fused, fall apart in consciousness, and there is an alternation, an oscillation, between them, accompanied by a disagreeable tone when they are apart, and an agreeable tone when they become fused again. Moreover, the separation in consciousness during the period when the quales are apart is not complete, but the image of the fused quale is at least dimly present. Specifically, in ordinary or normal vision, there is no distinction within consciousness of the ocular-motor sensation which corresponds to fixation, from the optical sensations of light and color. The two are so intimately fused that there is but one quale in consciousness. In these cases, there is feeling of ease, or at least absence of sense of effort. In other cases, the sensations corresponding to frowning, to holding the head steady, the breathing fixed -- the whole adjustment of motor apparatus -- come into consciousness of themselves on their own account. Now we are not accustomed to find satisfaction in the experience of motor adjustment; the relevant sensations have value and interest, not in themselves, but in the specific quales of sound, color, touch, or whatever they customarily introduce. In at least ninety-nine one hundredths of our experience, the "muscular" sensations are felt simply as passing over into some other experience which is either aimed at, or which, when experienced, affords satisfaction. A habit of expectation, of looking forward to some other experience. thus comes to he the normal associate of motor experience. It is felt as fringe, as "tendency," not as psychical resting place. Whenever it persists as motor, whenever the expectation of other sensory quales of positive value is not met, there is at least a transitory feeling of futility, of thwartedness, or of irritation at a failure. Hence the disagreeable tone referred to. But in the type of cases taken as our illustration, more is true than a failure of an expected consequent through mere inertia of habit. The image of the end 

( 49) aimed at persists, and, through its contrast with the partial motor quale, emphasizes and reinforces the sense of incompleteness. That is to say, one is continually imaging the speck as having some particular form -- an oval or an angular form; as having a certain nature -- an inkspot, a flyspeck. Then this image is as continually interfered with by the sensations of motor adjustment coming to consciousness by themselves. Each experience breaks into, and breaks up, the other before it has attained fullness. Let the image of a five-sided inkspot be acquiesced in apart from the motor adjustment (in other words, let one pass into the state of reverie), or let the "muscular" sensations be given complete sway by themselves (as when one begins to study them in his capacity as psychologist), and all sense of effort disappears: It is the rivalry, with the accompanying disagreeable tone due to failure of habit, that constitutes the sense of effort.

It will be useful to apply the terms of this analysis to some attendant phenomena of effort. First, it enables us to account for the growing sense of effort with fatigue, without having to resort to a set of conceptions lying outside the previously used ideas. The sense of fatigue increases effort, just because it marks the emergence into consciousness of a distinct new set of sensations which resist absorption into, or fusion with, the dominant images of the current habit or purpose. Upon the basis of other theories of effort, fatigue increases sense of effort because of sheer exhaustion; upon this theory, because of the elements introduced which distract attention. Other theories, in other words, have to fall back upon an extrapsychical factor, and something which is heterogeneous with the other factors concerned. Moreover, they fail to account for the fact that if the feeling of fatigue is surrendered to, it ceases to be disagreeable, and may become a delicious languor.

In a similar way certain facts connected with sense of effort, as related to the mastery of novel acts, may be explained. Take the alternation of ridiculous excess of effort, with total collapse of effort in learning to ride a bicycle. Before one 

(50) mounts one has perhaps a pretty definite visual image of himself in balance and in motion. This image persists as a desirability. On the other hand, there comes into play at once the consciousness of the familiar motor adjustments -- for the most part, related to walking The two sets of sensations refuse to coincide, and the result is an amount of stress and strain relevant to the most serious problems of the universe. Or, again, the conflict becomes so unregulated that the image of the balance disappears, and one finds himself with only a lot of "muscular" sensations at hand; the effort entirely vanishes. I have taken an extreme case, but surely everyone is familiar, in dealing with unfamiliar occupations, of precisely this alternation of effort, out of all proportion to the objective significance of the end, with the complete mind-wandering and failure of endeavor. If the sense of effort is the sense of incompatibility between two sets of sensory images, one of which stands for an end to be reached, or a fulfillment of a habit, while the other represents the experiences which intervene in reaching the end, these phenomena are only what are to be expected. But if we start from a "spiritual" theory of effort, I know of no explanation which is anything more than an hypostatized repetition of the facts to be explained.

It probably has already occurred to the reader, that when the theory of the sensational character of the consciousness of effort is analyzed, instead of being merely thrown out at large, the feeling that it deals common sense a blow in the face disappears. If we state the foregoing analysis in objective, instead of in psychical, terms, it just says that effort is the feeling of opposition existing between end and means. The kinesthetic image of qualitative nature (i.e., of color, sound, contact) stands for the end, whether consciously desired, or as furnishing the culmination of habit. The "muscular" sensations [3] represent the means, the experiences to which value is not attached on their own account, but as intermediaries to an intrinsically valuable consciousness.


Practically stated, this means that effort is nothing more, and also nothing less, than tension between means and ends in action, and that the sense of effort is the awareness of this conflict. The sensational character of this experience, which has been such a stumbling block to some, means that this tension of adjustment is not merely ideal, but is actual (i.e., practical); it is one which goes on in a struggle for existence. Being a struggle for realization in the world of concrete quales and values, it makes itself felt in the only media possible -- specific sensations, on the one hand, and muscular sensations, on the other. Instead of denying, or slurring over, effort, such an account brings it into prominence. Surely what common sense values in effort is not some transcendental net, occurring before any change in the actual world of qualities, but precisely this readjustment within the concrete region. And if one is somewhat scandalized at being told that the awareness of effort is a sense of changes of breathing, of muscular tensions, etc., it is not, I conceive, because of what is said, but rather because of what is left unsaid -- that these sensations report the state of things as regards effective realization.

It is difficult to see, upon a more analytic consideration than common sense is called upon to make, what is gained for the "spiritual" nature of effort by relegating it to a purely extrasensational region. That "spiritual" is to be so interpreted as to mean existence in a sphere transcending space and time determinations is, at best, a piece of metaphysics, and not a piece of psychology; and as a piece of metaphysics, it cannot escape competition with the theory which finds the meaning of the spiritual in the whole process of realizing the concrete values of life. I do not find that any of the upholders of the non-sensational quality of effort has ever made a very specific analysis of the experience. Professor Baldwin's account, however, being perhaps the most thoroughgoing statement of effort as preceding sensation, in ''physical" as well as "spiritual" effort, is, perhaps, as explicit as any. In one passage, effort is "distinct consciousness of opposition between what we call self and muscular resistance." Now a consciousness of mus-

(52) -cular resistance, whatever else it may or may not be, would seem to involve sensations, and the consciousness of effort to be, so far forth, sensationally mediated -- which is contrary to the hypothesis. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to see how there can be any consciousness of opposition between the self in general, and the muscles in general. Until the "self" actually starts to do something (and then, of course, there are sensations), how can the muscles offer any opposition to it? And even when it does begin to do something, how can the muscles, as muscles, offer opposition? If because the act is unfamiliar, then certainly what we get is simply a case of difficulty in the having of a unified consciousness -- the kinesthetic image of the habitual movement will not unify with the proposed sensory image, and there is rivalry. But this is not a case of muscles resisting the self; it is a case of divided activity of the self. It means that the activity already going on (and, therefore, reporting itself sensationally) resists displacement, or transformation, by or into another activity which is beginning, and thus making its sensational report.

But Professor Baldwin gives another statement which is apparently different. "In all voluntary movement, therefore, there is an earlier fiat than the will to move, i.e., the fiat of attention to the particular idea of movement." And it is repeatedly intimated that the real difficulty in effort is, not in the muscular execution, but in holding a given idea in consciousness. (In fact, it is distinctly stated that, even in muscular effort, the real effort is found in "attending" to the idea.) Now, this statement is certainly preferable to the other, in that it avoids the appearance of making the muscles offer resistance to the self. But now, what has become of the resistance, and, hence, of the effort? Is there anything left to offer opposition to the self? Can an idea, qua pure idea, offer resistance and demand effort? And is it the self, as barely self, to which resistance is made? Such questions may, perhaps, serve to indicate the abstractness of the account, and suggest the fact that effort is never felt, save when a change of existing activity is proposed. In this case, the effort 

(53) may be centered in the introduction of the new idea as against the persistence of the present doing, or it may be to maintain the existing habit against the suggested change. In the former, the new activity will probably be categorized as duty; in the latter case, as temptation or distraction. But in either alternative, effort is felt with reference to the adjustment of factors in an action. Neither of these is exclusively self, neither the old nor the new factor; and the one which happens to be especially selected as self varies with the state of action. At one period, the end or aim is regarded as self, and the existing habit, or mode of action, as the obstruction to the realization of the desired self; at the next stage, the end having been pretty well defined, the habit, or existing line of action, since the only means or instrument for attaining this end, is conceived as self, and the ideal as "beyond," and at once as resisting and as soliciting the self.

I do not suppose anyone will question this account, so far as relates to the fact that the sense of effort arises only with reference to a proposed change in the existing activity, and that at least the existing activity has its sensational counterpart. Doubt is more likely to arise as regards the proposed end, or the intruding distraction. This, it may be said, is pure idea, not activity, and, hence, has no sensational report. But whoever takes this position must be able to explain the differentia between instances of logical manipulation of an idea, aesthetic contemplation, and cases of sense of effort. I may take the idea of something I ought to do, but which is repulsive to me; may say that I ought to do it, and may then hold the idea as an idea or object in consciousness, may revolve it in all lights, may turn it over and over, may chew it as a sweet or a bitter cud, and yet have absolutely no sense of effort. It is only, so far as I can trust my own observation, when this idea passes into at least nascent or partial action, and thus comes head up against some other line of action, that the sense of effort arises.

In other words, the sense of effort arises, not because there is an activity struggling against resistance, or a self which is 

(54) endeavoring to overcome obstacles outside of it; but it arises within activity, marking the attempt to co-ordinate separate factors within a single whole. Activity is here taken not as formal, but as actual and specific. It means an act, definitely doing-something definite. An act, as something which occupies time, necessarily means conflict of acts. The demand for time is simply the result of a lack of unity. The intervening process of execution, the use of means, is the process of disintegrating acts hitherto separate and independent, and putting together the result, or fragments, into a single piece of conduct. Were it not for the division of acts and results in conflict, the deed, or co-ordination, would be accomplished at once.

One of the conflicting acts stands for the end or aim. This, at first, is the sensory image which gives the cue and motive to the reaction or response. In the case previously cited, it is the image of the colored speck, as determining the movements of the head and eye muscles. [4] That we are inclined to view only the motor response as act, and regard the image, either as alone psychical, or as pure idea, is because the image is already in existence, and, therefore, its active side may be safely neglected. Being already in possession of the field, it does not require any conscious activity to keep it in existence. The movement of the muscles, being the means by which the desired end may be reached, becomes the all-important thing, or the act; in accordance with the general principle that attention always goes to the weakest part of a coordination in process of formation, meaning by weakest, that part least under the immediate control of habit. This being conceived alone as act, everything lying outside of it is conceived as resistance; thus recognition is avoided of the fact, that the real state of things is, that there are two acts mutually opposing each other, during their transformation over into a third new and inclusive act.


We have here, I think, an adequate explanation of all that can be said about the tremendous importance of effort, of all that Professor James has so conclusively said; This importance is not due to the fact that effort is the one sole evidence of a free spiritual activity struggling against outward and material resistance. It is due to the fact that effort is the critical point of progress in action, arising whenever old habits are in process of reconstruction, or of adaptation to new conditions; unless they are so readapted, life is given over to the rule of conservatism, routine, and over-inertia. To make a new co-ordination the old coordination must, to some extent, be broken up, and the only way of breaking it up is for it to come into conflict with some other coordination; that is, a conflict of two acts, each representing a habit, or end, is the necessary condition of reaching a new act which shall have a more comprehensive end. That sensations of the bodily state report to us this conflict and readjustment, merely indicates that the reconstruction going on is one of acts, and not mere ideas. The whole prejudice which supposes that the spiritual sense of effort is lost when it is given sensational quality, is simply a survival of the notion that an idea is somehow more spiritual than an act.

Up to this time I have purposely avoided any reference to the attempt to explain effort by attention. My experience has been that this mode of explanation does not explain, but simply shifts the difficulty, at the same time making it more obscure by claiming to solve it. There is some danger that attention may become a psychological pool of Bethesda. If we have escaped the clutch of associationalism, only to fall into attentionalism, we have hardly bettered our condition in psychology. But the preceding account would apply to any concrete analyses of effort in terms of attention. The psychological fallacy besets us here. We confuse attention as an objective fact, attention for the observer, with attention as consciously experienced. During complete absorption an onlooker may remark how attentive such a person is, or after such an absorption one may look back and say how attentive one was; but taking the 

(56) absorption when it occurs, it means that only the subject matter is present in consciousness, not attention itself. We are conscious of being attentive only when our attention is divided, only when there are two centers of attention competing with each other, only when there is an oscillation from one group of ideas to another, together with a tendency to a third group of ideas, in which the two previous groups are included. The sense of strain in attention, instead of being coincident with the activity of attention, is proof that attention itself is not yet complete.

To establish the identity of attention with the formation of a new act through the mutual adaptation of two existing habits, would take us too far away from our present purpose; but there need he no hesitation. I believe, in admitting that the sense of attention arises only under the conditions of conflict already stated.


  1. Professor James, to whom, along with Ferrier, we owe, for the most part the express recognition of the sensational quales concerned in effort, appears to accept the second of these three types of views. I do not know that the question has been raised as to how this distinction is reconcilable with his general theory of emotion; nor yet how his ground for making it -- the superiority of the spiritual over the physical -- is to be adjusted to his assertion (Psychology, II, p. 453) that the sensational theory of emotions does not detract from their spiritual significance
  2. A number of cases, on further questioning, reported a similar rhythm of contraction and movement accompanying mental effort. This topic would stand special inquiry.
  3. Perhaps it would be well to state that sensations of tendons, joints, internal contacts, etc., are what is meant by this term -- the whole report of the motor adjustment.
  4. It must not be forgotten that both sensory stimulus and motor response are both in reality sensorimotor, and, therefore, each is itself an act or psychical whole. On this point, see my "The Reflex Arc Concept."

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2