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Cognitive prostheses for goal achievement


Procrastination takes a considerable toll on people’s lives, the economy and society at large. Procrastination is often a consequence of people’s propensity to prioritize their immediate experiences over the long-term consequences of their actions. This suggests that aligning immediate rewards with long-term values could be a promising way to help people make more future-minded decisions and overcome procrastination. Here we develop an approach to decision support that leverages artificial intelligence and game elements to restructure challenging sequential decision problems in such a way that it becomes easier for people to take the right course of action. A series of four increasingly realistic experiments suggests that this approach can enable people to make better decisions faster, procrastinate less, complete their work on time and waste less time on unimportant tasks. These findings suggest that our method is a promising step towards developing cognitive prostheses that help people achieve their goals.

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Fig. 1: Experiment 1.
Fig. 2: Conditions of Experiment 1.
Fig. 3: Experiment 2.
Fig. 4: Conditions of Experiment 2.
Fig. 5: Screenshot from Experiment 3.
Fig. 6: Proportions of participants in Experiment 3 who completed all assignments by the deadline.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available at

Code availability

The code used to conduct Experiment 1, Experiment 2 and its follow-up experiments is available at The code used to conduct Experiment 3 and Experiment 4 is available on GitHub at The code used to analyse the data is available at and in the Supplementary Software file.


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Preliminary versions of Experiments 1 and 2 were presented at the 38th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. This material has been substantially revised and expanded for the present Article. We would like to thank J. R. Nill and E. Q. Zhang for their contributions to developing the to-do list gamification app, P. Michaelsen for sharing his self-report measures of autonomy and intrusion, T. Ntounis for technical support, and E. Kon, R. Antonova, P. Krueger, M. Pacer, D. Reichman, S. Russell and J. Suchow for feedback and discussion. This work was supported by grant number 1757269 from the National Science Foundation, grant number ONR MURI N00014-13-1-0341, and a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to T.L.G. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



F.L. and T.L.G. designed the research. F.L., P.M.K. and O.C. performed the research. F.L. and P.M.K. analysed the data. F.L. and T.L.G. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Falk Lieder.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–21, Supplementary Tables 1–5, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary References.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Software

Analysis code.

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Lieder, F., Chen, O.X., Krueger, P.M. et al. Cognitive prostheses for goal achievement. Nat Hum Behav 3, 1096–1106 (2019).

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