If you were a fly on the wall of a Stanford University experiment room in the late 1950s, you might have seen and heard things that took you aback at first.
“Prostitute. Virgin. Petting…”
“Fuck. Cock. Screw…”
In this case, you would be witnessing a well-known experiment by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills.
63 female college students were invited to take part in a study on the psychology of sex. They were split into 3 groups: a control group, a mild-embarrassment group and a severe-embarrassment group.
The mild and severe groups were first asked to complete a reading test to ensure that they were not too embarrassed to talk about sexual topics with others. In the mild-embarrassment group, participants read five mild sexualised words aloud (e.g. prostitute, virgin, petting). In the severe-embarrassment group, participants read 12 obscene words aloud (e.g. fuck, cock, screw), followed by two vivid descriptions of sexual activity from contemporary novels.
The scene was set.
Next, participants from all three groups listened to what they believed was a live group discussion (but was actually a recording) about sexual behaviour in animals between three undergraduates.
The discussion was deliberately uninteresting, and Aronson and Mills later described the characteristics of this recording rather bluntly:
“It was deliberately designed to be as dull and banal as possible in order to maximize the dissonance of the subjects in the Severe condition. The participants spoke dryly and haltingly on secondary sex behavior in the lower animals, “inadvertently” contradicted themselves and one another, mumbled several non sequiturs, started sentences that they never finished, hemmed, hawed, and in general conducted one of the most worthless and uninteresting discussions imaginable.”
Here’s where this bizarre study comes together. Afterwards, when asked to rate the discussion group and its members, the severe-embarrassment group’s ratings were significantly higher than the control and mild-embarrassment groups, which didn’t differ in their ratings.
In other words, the group with the most difficult qualifying test (taking embarrassment as a proxy for effort) rated that “worthless and uninteresting discussion” much more highly than the groups with little or no initial effort.
Why? Because they were confronted with a cognitive dissonance between their unpleasant initiation and that uninteresting discussion. The only way to resolve that dissonance was to increase the perceived value of the discussion.
What Is Effort Justification?
Psychologists call this tendency effort justification. It describes our tendency to place more value on outcomes to which we have dedicated effort, despite a lower objective value. In other words, it’s our brain’s way of resolving the dissonance between effort and result.
If we searched the country looking for a work of art, our effort in acquiring that art is likely to distort our eventual valuation of it regardless of its real merit. If we spent three years writing a book, those hours of work are likely to bias our valuation regardless of the book’s objective quality. And if we passed a demanding initiation into a group, that grueling entry may lead us to rate its members more highly than those who bypassed the initial effort.
Effort justification has some close parallels with the sunk cost fallacy and IKEA effect. It marks the influence of our past actions and decisions on our current choices.
When it comes to relationships, health, money, and come to think of it, life, our attempts to resolve the dissonance between effort and results are often more unhelpful than helpful. They can lead to false hope and ultimately misplaced effort.
Focus on Results
Bottom line: Results aren’t always a function of effort. And thinking it can’t make it so. One only needs to look around their workplace to see this relationship is not linear.
The key to avoiding the trap of effort justification is to focus on results and effective effort.
Step back and assess results objectively. Ask yourself how you would value the outcome if you were completely independent from its attainment. This is especially important when the result required significant time and effort.
Beware of difficult initiations. Tough rites of passage and initiations can create a distorted attachment to groups and qualifications. This is how gangs thrive and grow, and how we falsely convince ourselves of the merits of useless and expensive titles. Once through such initiations, consider the value of what follows objectively. Think twice when forming perspectives on the performance of other members.
Think of the end game. Ask yourself what defines a good result at the start of a project or endeavour. Write it down and regularly remind yourself of it. Use it to determine if you are being effective or just busy.
The Path Matters, Too
Of course, all of this is not to say that overvaluing our results because of our effort is always a bad thing. How we got somewhere often matters equally or even more than the objective value of the destination.
Effort is always formative in one way or another. We learn from sustained effort, especially when we confront adversity along the way.
The real danger, however, is that effort justification can lead us to misplace our energy over the long run. Just imagine it. Years of energy allocated to a cause because of attempts to resolve the dissonance between effort and results.
The path matters, but so does its opportunity cost.