You make me tired: An experimental test of the role of interpersonal operant conditioning in fatigue



Chronic fatigue is highly prevalent in the general population as well as in multiple chronic diseases and psychiatric disorders. Its etiology however remains poorly understood and cannot be explained by biological factors alone. Occurring in a psychosocial context, the experience and communication of fatigue may be shaped by social interactions. In particular, interpersonal operant conditioning may strengthen and perpetuate fatigue complaints. In this experiment, individuals (N=44) repeatedly rated their currently experienced fatigue while engaging in cognitive effort (working memory task). Subtle social reward was given when fatigue increased relative to the previous rating; or disapproval when fatigue decreased. In the control condition, only neutral feedback was given. Although all participants became more fatigued during cognitive effort, interpersonal operant conditioning led to increased fatigue reporting relative to neutral feedback. This effect occurred independently of conscious awareness. Interestingly, the experimental condition also performed worse on the working memory task. Results suggest that fatigue complaints (and cognitive performance) may become controlled by their consequences such as social reward, and not exclusively by their antecedents such as effort. Results have implications for treatment development and suggest that interpersonal operant conditioning may contribute to fatigue becoming a chronic symptom.
Date made available2 Feb 2022

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