Performance Management

Gauging Difficulty: Cognitive Factors that Affect Performance

As work tasks become more difficult, many people think that a person will generally set lower or more realistic expectations for performance progress, which should subsequently influence the level of performance success. While research has demonstrated relationships among task difficulty, performance expectancies, and performance outcomes, recent evidence is also pointing out that several cognitive factors complicate this relationship.  These factors are:
  • Need for Cognition
  • Task Difficulty
  • Cognitive Strain
  • Self-Concept

Need for Cognition

Need for cognition (NFC) involves the extent to which a person desires effortful, challenging thinking that involves such activities as information gathering and problem solving. NFC is not the same as intelligence, but rather is a motivation-related trait. People with a greater NFC develop more realistic performance expectancies in alignment with task realities, whereas people low in NFC do not adapt their performance expectancies to the perceived difficulty of the task at hand. Specifically, people high in NFC demonstrate greater performance when their expectations are high, but low NFC people do not see their performance improved by having higher expectations. Thus, people low in NFC appear to not put as much in-depth thought as people high in NFC into how the difficulty of a task can affect the progress made on it. As a consequence, the relationship between expectations and performance only appears to exist for individuals with a high need for cognition.

Task Difficulty

The relationship between expectations, NFC, and performance also depends on the actual difficulty of the task: the relationship exists for difficult tasks but not for easy tasks. This seems to be the case because easy tasks do not require as much effort and ability as difficult tasks. Thus, while high NFC people appear particularly well-suited to gauge how much effort and ability will be required to successfully perform, they only have this advantage over those with low NFC in forming expectations about harder assignments that require deeper thinking.

Cognitive Strain

When people have to divide their cognition (i.e., attention, memory) between tasks, it becomes harder for them to use information about task difficulty to form expectations about how well they will do on the task. Thus, when there is greater strain on a person’s cognition, such as having divided attention, the relationship between task difficulty and performance expectations is reduced or even eliminated. This even occurred for individuals high in NFC. Need for cognition appears to influence the task difficulty-expectancies relationship only when cognitive strain is relatively low.


The self-concept of ability, or how one thinks of one’s self with regards to a particular ability, also seems to affect performance expectancies. General self-concept is a broader, abstract view of one’s self, while specific or task-focused self-concept involves views of one’s self that are related to specific behaviors. Research indicates that for people low in NFC (but not those high in NFC), general self-concept predicts performance expectancies. The reverse occurs with individuals high in NFC (but not those low in NFC), in that they demonstrate a relationship between specific self-concept (which requires more focused thinking) and their performance expectancies.

Implications for Practice

As revealed in the above summary, several different factors have shown to affect the relationship between the expectations people form about how well they will do and their subsequent actual performance. Some of these factors influence the relationship by conditionally affecting each other in potentially complicated ways. Drawing from these findings, the DeGarmo Group offers several recommendations for professional practice:
  • Research has indicated that expectations affect persistence, which affects performance. Strive to create more accurate expectations of work performance so that people will put in the level of effort needed to do well.
  • Need for cognition is a dispositional trait, which means it is a relatively stable personal characteristic. Thus, it can be assessed for selection purposes with jobs that require a great deal of challenging thinking and problem solving. Also, this trait could be assessed to identify low NFC employees who may need additional coaching with regard to developmental activities like training or goal setting.
  • Concerns about expectation effects should be focused on difficult work tasks.
  • Reduce factors that increase cognitive load, such as strains on attention or memory, when trying to develop performance or goal expectations. For example, take care when working on goal expectations during a developmental performance appraisal with an employee who is at that time distracted by multiple projects or tasks.
  • If a person’s self-concept is evoked when trying to develop performance expectancies for him or her, it may be important to consider whether the person is high or low in NFC; their standing on NFC could determine whether their general self-concept or task-specific self-concept influences the expectations they form.
Managing performance expectations so they more closely align with reality may be difficult, but doing so can have a substantial effect on the desired results. When crafting expectations through such processes as performance appraisals and goal-setting, keep in mind such factors as NFC, cognitive strain, self-concept, and task difficulty for producing optimal outcomes.

Donnie Johnson


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Reinhard, M., & Dickhäuser, O. (2009). Need for cognition, task difficulty, and the formation of performance expectancies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1062-1076.