Examining tradeoffs between cognitive effort and relief among adults with self-injurious behavior

Peter J. Franz, Rebecca G. Fortgang, Alexander J. Millner, Adam C. Jaroszewski, Ellen M. Wittler, Jonathan E. Alpert, Joshua W. Buckholtz, Matthew K. Nock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: People engage in nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) to reduce negative affect, but it is not clear why they engage in this harmful type of behavior instead of using healthier strategies. The primary goal of this study was to evaluate whether people choose NSSI to reduce negative affect because they perceive it to be less cognitively costly than other available strategies. Method: In experiment one, 43 adults completed a novel, relief-based effort discounting task designed to index preferences about exerting cognitive effort to achieve relief. In experiment two, 149 adults, 52 % with a history of NSSI, completed our effort discounting task. Results: Our main results suggest that people will accept less relief from an aversive experience if doing so requires expending less effort, i.e. they demonstrate effort discounting in the context of decisions about relief. We also found and that effort discounting is stronger among those with a history of NSSI, but this association became nonsignificant when simultaneously accounting for other conditions associated with aberrant effort tradeoffs. Limitations: The use of a control group without NSSI or other potentially harmful relief-seeking behaviors limits our ability to draw specific conclusions about NSSI. The ecological validity of our task was limited by a modestly effective affect manipulation, and because participants made hypothetical choices. Conclusions: This study demonstrates that preferences about exerting cognitive effort may be a barrier to using healthier affect regulation strategies. Further, the preference not to exert cognitive effort, though present in NSSI, is likely not unique to NSSI. Instead, effort discounting may be a transdiagnostic mechanism promoting an array of harmful relief-seeking behaviors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)320-328
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
StatePublished - Jan 15 2023


  • Cognitive effort
  • Decision making
  • Relief
  • Self-injury

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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