Attentional Association And Dissociation

Coping with acute exertional sensations during physical effort expenditure requires optimal use of attentional  resources.  Association  and  dissociation  are two broad attentional strategies for coping with exertional stimuli during effort expenditure. Association represents the shift of the attentional focus inward (to somatic sensations), and dissociation represents the shift of the attentional focus outward (away from somatic  sensations).  Association  and  dissociation, therefore, correspond to internal and external foci, respectively.

Comparative  research  findings  indicate  that both  association  and  dissociation  can  be  effective  and  ineffective.  Specifically,  depending  on several  characteristics  inherent  in  task  and  effort conditions  either  strategy  was  shown  to  be  more or  less  potent.  There  is  a  general  consensus  that associative  strategies  may  help  performance  in competitive events such as long-distance running, while dissociative strategies may help adherence in noncompetitive physical activity settings such as a routine treadmill walk.

Associative Versus Dissociative Strategies

Associative   strategies   increase   awareness   of physiological   cues,   such   as   breathing,   heart pounding,  and  muscle  pain,  leading  to  increased negative affective responses during physical activity.  Nevertheless,  association  also  enables  better  effort  monitoring  and  self-regulation,  thereby allowing increased time on task as well as greater performance  efficiency,  performance  outcome, and  injury  prevention.  Dissociative  strategies,  on the other hand, are closely linked to a number of task-related variables, including task-related pleasure, confidence, feelings of ease, and motivation. Moreover,  dissociating  helps  lower  perception  of fatigue  and  exertion,  thereby  allowing  reduced sense of task difficulty.

In  sum,  because  associative  strategies  correspond  to  an  inward  focus  of  attention,  their  use increases awareness of somatic cues during effort expenditure.  In  contrast,  the  use  of  dissociative strategies  decreases  awareness  of  somatic  cues, helps  curb  the  physiological  stress  posed  by  the effort, and overall results in a greater potential for enhancing the physical activity experience.

It is evident that, while an associative attentional focus is more beneficial for performance                                                                               enhancement  during  competitive  events,  a  dissociative attentional  focus  is  of  greater  value  for  relatively untrained   individuals   or   during   noncompetitive  events.  Distraction  from  aversive  sensations via  the  use  of  dissociative  strategies  is,  however, limited and closely depends on the effort intensity (workload).

Attention Inflexibility and Attention Threshold

As a limited capacity, attention is compromised in its flexibility to cope with physiological sensations as  the  effort  expenditure  increases.  Specifically, at  the  onset  of  effort  expenditure  or  at  submaximal workloads, attentional focus is flexible: It can be  switched  back  and  forth  effortlessly  between associative and dissociative foci. Increase in physiological  stress,  however,  leads  the  system  to  be challenged  and  compromised  in  its  attentional flexibility. Specifically, as the workload gets harder or time on task increases, attention shifts inwards, preventing the system from distracting. The point at  which  attention  loses  its  flexibility  to  shift between dissociation and association is termed the dissociative/associative  (D/A)  attention  threshold. The concept entails that, once a subjective perceptual  threshold  relative  to  perceived  physiological cues is exceeded, attention shifts from a dissociative focus to an associative one. Thus, as this perceptual threshold is attained, dissociative strategies are compromised in their capacity to distract from aversive cues of fatigue. The latter results in a final tuning  into  an  associative  focus,  hence  a  growing  concentration  on  the  acute  stress  of  exertion. The  attention  threshold  occurs  in  parallel  to  the aerobic–anaerobic  transition.  Thus,  when  the physical  effort  expenditure  is  maintained  below the attention threshold, effort can be sustained significantly longer than when the effort expenditure is  at  or  above  the  aerobic–anaerobic  transition levels. Specifically, a shift from dissociative to associative focus of attention takes place as the workload  intensity  begins  exceeding  approximately 50% of the individual’s maximal capacity. In fact, when  individuals  report  equal  employment  of associative  and  dissociative  strategies,  associative strategies gradually take over rendering the cessation of the effort imminent. The issue of attention inflexibility and interventions to address it are the subject of a growing number of studies.

Methods for Extending the D/A Threshold

Distractive capabilities of dissociative strategies are compromised  once  the  D/A  attention  threshold  is exceeded, that is, as marked by the final tune into the associative attention focus. Successful attempts to delay the occurrence of the D/A threshold may aid  in  extending  effort  expenditure.  To  that  aim, exposure  to  polysensory  feedback  including  the use of auditory stimuli such as music, use of olfactory stimuli such as differential odorants, and use of  mental  imagery  and  virtual  reality,  have  been shown  to  help  postpone  the  final  tune  into  the associative  focus—but  at  low  to  moderate  workload  intensities  only.  Because  the  optimal  use  of attentional resources is central to sport and exercise performance  and  adherence,  testing  the  effectiveness  of  further  modalities  designed  to  address  the issue of attentional inflexibility remains important.


  1. Lind, E., Welch, A. S., & Ekkekakis, P. (2009). Do “mind over muscle” strategies work? Examining the effects of attentional association and dissociation on exertional, affective, and physiological responses to exercise. Sports Medicine, 39(9), 743–764.
  2. Morgan, W. P. (1978). The mind of the marathoner. Psychology Today, 11, 38–49.
  3. Morgan, W. P., & Pollock, M. L. (1977). Psychological characterization of the elite distance runner. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, 301, 382–403.
  4. Noble, B. J., & Robertson, R. J. (1996). Perceived exertion. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  5. Tenenbaum, G. (2001). A social-cognitive perspective of perceived exertion and exertion tolerance. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (pp. 810–822). New York: Wiley.
  6. Tenenbaum, G. (2005). The study of perceived and sustained effort: Concepts, research findings, and future directions. In D. Hackfort, J. L. Duda, & R. Lidor (Eds.), Handbook of research on applied sport psychology (pp. 335–349). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

See also: