Saturday, February 02, 2019

Is executive function different from cognitive control? The results of an informal poll

It ended in a tie!

Granted, this is a small and biased sample, and I don't have a large number of followers. The answers might have been different had @russpoldrack (Yes in a landslide) or @Neuro_Skeptic (n=12,458 plus 598 wacky write-in votes) posed the question.

Before the poll I facetiously asked:
Other hypothetical questions (that you don't need to answer) might include:
  • Are you a clinical neuropsychologist? 
  • Do you use computational modeling in your work?1
  • What is your age?
Here, I was thinking:
  • Clinical neuropsychologists would say No
  • Computational researchers would say Yes
  • On average, older people would be more likely to say No than younger people

After the poll I asked, “So what ARE the differences between executive function and cognitive control? Or are the terms arbitrary, and their usage a matter of context / subfield?”

No one wanted to expound on the differences between the terms.2
I answered No, because I think the terms are arbitrary, and their usage a matter of context and subfield. Not that Wikipedia is the ultimate authority, but I was amused to see this:

Executive functions

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Cognitive control)
Executive functions (collectively referred to as executive function and cognitive control) are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals. Executive functions include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility

Nature said this:

Cognitive control

Cognitive control is the process by which goals or plans influence behaviour. Also called executive control, this process can inhibit automatic responses and influence working memory. Cognitive control supports flexible, adaptive responses and complex goal-directed thought. Some disorders, such as schizophrenia and ADHD, are associated with impairments of executive function.

They're using the terms interchangeably! The terms cognitive control, executive control, executive function, and executive control functions are not well-differentiated, except in specific contexts. For instance, the Carter Lab definition below sounds specific at first, but then branches out to encompass many “executive functions” not named as such.

Cognitive Control

"Cognitive control" is a construct from contemporary cognitive neuroscience that refers to processes that allow information processing and behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment depending on current goals, rather than remaining rigid and inflexible. Cognitive control processes include a broad class of mental operations including goal or context representation and maintenance, and strategic processes such as attention allocation and stimulus-response mapping. Cognitive control is associated with a wide range of processes and is not restricted to a particular cognitive domain. For example, the presence of impairments in cognitive control functions may be associated with specific deficits in attention, memory, language comprehension and emotional processing. ...

Actually, the term Cognitive Control dates back to the 1920s, if not further. Two quick examples.

(1) When talking about Charles Spearman and his theory of intelligence and his three qualitative principles, Charles S. Slocombe (1928) said:
“To these he adds five quantitative principles, cognitive control (attention), fatigue, retentivity, constancy of output, and primordial potency...”
Simple! Cognitive Control = Attention.

(2) Frederick Anderson (1942), in The Relational Theory of Mind:
“Meanings, then, are mental processes which, although not themselves objects for consciousness, actively modify and characterize that of which we are for the moment conscious. They differ from other subconscious processes in this respect, that we have cognitive control over them and can at any moment bring them to light if we choose.”
Cognitive Control = having the capacity of “bringing things into consciousness” — is this different from attention, or “paying attention” to something by making it the focus of awareness?

Moving into the 21st century, two of the quintessential contemporary cognitive control papers that [mostly] banish executives from their midst are:

Miller and Cohen (2001):
“The prefrontal cortex has long been suspected to play an important role in cognitive control, in the ability to orchestrate thought and action in accordance with internal goals.”

Botvinick et al. (2001):
“A remarkable feature of the human cognitive system is its ability to configure itself for the performance of specific tasks through appropriate adjustments in perceptual selection, response biasing, and the on-line maintenance of contextual information. The processes behind such adaptability, referred to collectively as cognitive control, have been the focus of a growing research program within cognitive psychology.”

I originally approached this topic during research for a future post on Mindstrong and their “digital phenotyping” technology. Two of their five biomarkers are Executive Function and Cognitive Control. How do they differ? There's an awful lot of overlap, as we'll see in a future post.


1 Another fun (and related) determinant might be, “does your work focus on the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex? In which case, the respondent would answer Yes.

2 except for one deliberately obfuscatory response.


Anderson F. (1942). The Relational Theory of Mind. The Journal of Philosophy 39(10):253-60.

Botvinick MM, Braver TS, Barch DM, Carter CS, Cohen JD. (2001). Conflict monitoring and cognitive control. Psychol Rev. 108(3):624-52.

Miller EK, Cohen JD. (2001). An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function. Annual Rev Neurosci. 2001;24:167-202.

Slocombe CS. (1928). Of mental testing—a pragmatic theory. Journal of Educational Psychology 19(1):1-24.


Many, many articles use the terms interchangeably. I won't single out anyone in particular. Instead, here is a valiant attempt by Nigg (2017) to make a slight differentiation between them in a review paper entitled:
On the relations among self-regulation, self-control, executive functioning, effortful control, cognitive control, impulsivity, risk-taking, and inhibition for developmental psychopathology.
But in the end he concludes, “Executive functioning, effortful control, and cognitive control are closely related.”

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At February 05, 2019 10:28 AM, Anonymous Amirography said...

Fascinating results as well as interesting excerpts. However I think though these two terms has considerable overlaps,there are functions that are not included by executive functions that are not included by cognitive control. Such as time perception.


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