ADHD News & Research

Study: Cognitive Training Works Best When Approached with Positivity

Cognitive training works best when participants are told the intervention will help them perform better on a working memory task, according to a new study that suggests positive expectations of success can impact outcomes with cognitive training.

September 8, 2022

Preparation and a positive outlook may give people an edge over others who only prepare. According to a recent study published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, individuals given cognitive training who heard about the intervention’s benefits performed better on a working memory task than did those who received cognitive training but were not told how it would improve their performance. 1

The study divided 193 participants (73.6% female, 24.8% male, 0.8% nonbinary, and 0.8% unspecified) recruited from three U.S. universities into two groups. One group was told that cognitive training would improve their task performance, and the other was not. Half of each group completed cognitive training while the rest played a trivia game.

All participants given cognitive training performed better on the subsequent working memory task than did participants who played the trivia game instead. However, individuals who completed cognitive training and heard it would improve their skills performed best on the working memory task.1

Positive expectations did not affect all cognitive domains equally. The study found that fluid intelligence, cognitive flexibility, and working memory measures were more susceptible to expectation effects than were spatial cognition and visual selective attention. 1

To the researchers’ knowledge, this is the first study evaluating if it is possible to “cause changes in cognitive function in a long-term behavioral training study by manipulating expectations.” 1

This study suggests a real-world impact for populations with cognitive skills deficits, such as individuals diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. “These results highlight aspects of methodology that can inform future behavioral interventions and suggest that participant expectations could be capitalized on to maximize training outcomes,” the study’s authors said.

Limitations of the study included not knowing participants’ initial belief systems or expectations before testing.

“Future research should examine whether there are lasting effects of expectations in cognitive training if participants are made aware of their expectations both during and after training,” the study authors said.


1Parong, J., Seitz, A. R., Jaeggi, S. M., & Green, C. S. (2022). Expectation effects in working memory training. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 119(37), e2209308119.