"The desire to relieve stress of maintaining that information (all the things we need to do) in working memory can cause us to over-exert ourselves physically or take extra risks," said psychological scientist David Rosenbaum of Pennsylvania State University.

During the study, the researchers explored the trade-off between the weights of a load and how far people would carry it. They conducted nine experiments each of which had the same general setup.

College student participants stood at one end of an alley, along which two plastic beach buckets were stationed. The students were instructed to walk down the alley without stopping and to pick up one of the two buckets and drop it off at the end point. Participants showed an overwhelming tendency to choose which ever bucket had the shorter approach distance, which translated to the longer carrying distance in these experiments.

When the students were asked to explain why they chose the bucket they did, they often said that they ‘wanted to get the task done as soon as they could’. “Our findings indicate that while our participants did care about physical effort, they also cared a lot about mental effort," Rosenbaum added. By picking up the near bucket, they could check that task off their mental to-do lists more quickly than if they picked up the far bucket, he explained. The study appeared in the journal Psychological Science.


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