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Effort and Value

Is the hard work worth it?

Key points

  • Effort is work and it is costly.
  • Humans and other animals are motivated to work less.
  • There are no good examples for work being its own reward.

By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. – Ecclesiastes 10:18

Perhaps the central question of human motivation is ‘Why do we do anything?’ At the limit, we, the organisms, would be completely inert, and obviously that is no good. A mammal needs movement, and young mammals in particular need play. Movement and play are intrinsically pleasurable and thus theoretically unproblematic. The trouble begins with effort, if we agree that effort is a psychological cost, an exertion that entails pain and potentially suffering, in other words, states we are motivated to avoid. Yet we apply effort and the answer to the question of ‘why’ is usually found in the benefits we get when the work is done (as recognized by the Preacher in the epigraph).

We work to pay the bills and we might do some extra work to win approbation and respect (Hume, 1740/1978). We work for resources that we need to survive or that we want in order to feel good beyond mere survival. This basic motivational model presumes that we are rational actors. We exert effort inasmuch as we have learned and come to predict that the payoffs will be greater than the investments. A great amount of human struggle can be explained, at least in hindsight, by this general model.

The Powerful Urge to Avoid Work

In a recent essay posted on this platform, my student co-authors and I presented the results of a simulation study, which showed that, when given a hypothetical choice, the inclination to avoid work is even stronger than the desire for positive outcomes (Krueger, Sundar, Gresalfi, & Cohenuram, 2021). When told about the fictional musical instrument of the Milano, respondents ranked the desirability of 9 different scenarios resulting from an independent crossing of investment (few to many hours of practice) and outcome (good to world-class performance). It was not the case that world-class performance was most appealing if it was achieved after great effort. The average rankings told a clear story: Great outcomes are better than moderately good ones, but low effort is even far better than great effort to achieve any of these outcomes.

These findings are in line with the basic hedonistic model of human motivation, which is also the paradigm of the rational model. We, and other organisms, need and want good stuff and we prefer to get it on the cheap. This is rational and adaptive because it allows us to preserve resources in time and energy that we might need to respond to other pressing concerns.

The trouble is that this is not the full story. In a classic essay, Gomperz (1898) explored and rejected the idea that hedonism is the sole foundation of human behavior. Working from the armchair and from his knowledge of contemporary literature, Gomperz observed that other forms of behavior, such as acts of reflex, habit, or passion, violate the rational hedonic calculus. From this we might infer that humans (and other animals) sometimes exert effort even though they cannot expect the receipt of benefits to justify their troubles. Perhaps, but as it turns out, this is hard to show.

The Effort Paradox

Not long ago, Inzlicht, Shenhav, & Olivola (2018) made the case for an effort paradox. They argued that there are many examples of unrewarded effortful activity (i.e., work). They call attention to a theoretical blind spot where effortful behavior goes on without being rewarded and thus without being explained.

These behaviors are anomalies not only in the in the sense that they lie around unexplained but also in the sense that they should not even have occurred in the first place. The standard model forbids them. Yet, there they are. Or are they? Let me refer you, dear reader, to their article and to their table 1 in particular. Here, the authors list 12 examples of ‘valued effort,’ sorted by whether greater valuation is accorded to the outcome or to the effort itself, and whether the valuation is made in a prospective as opposed to a retrospective or concurrent sense.

The cleanest confirmation of an anomalous valuation of effort would be one where the organism makes a prospective decision or choice to work harder for a payoff than they have to. There is no such case. There is no airtight anomaly. Even Gomperz would be surprised. Let’s take a look at the four cases that come closest.

First, there is the martyrdom effect (Olivola & Shafir, 2013). Martyrs donate more to a charitable cause after committing to work (e.g., run 5k) rather than chill (enjoy a picnic). The effect emerges in a between-subjects paradigm but not in a within-subjects choice paradigm – like so many presumed irrationalities (Krueger & Funder, 2004). We are told that this is not a case of dissonance reduction, but why not? Once a person has made a commitment, they may wish to justify it by paying more. At any rate, the valuation goes to the charity or outcome, and not necessarily to the effort alone.

Second, there is learned industriousness (Eisenberger, 1992). Here, humans and other organisms learn that a particular kind of effort produces desired results. Perhaps the effort itself becomes a secondary reinforcer, but this is not even necessary. It is enough for the organism to learn that the pain of work leads to the pleasure of consumption. And off we go!

Third, there is contra-freeloading (Inglis, Forkman, & Lazarus, 1997). Now this is really cool. You, as well as rats and pigeons, keep working for a reward that you have learned you can produce even when this same reward is made available for free. This is prospective but the effort is not uncoupled from the outcome. Inglis et al. themselves conclude that there is no anomaly here. Working for the outcome comes with a sense of mastery and control over an otherwise uncertain environment. When the necessary work is increased without a change in outcomes, interest in exerting the effort diminishes, and this is how it should be. Some employers, believing they have hooked their workers, think they can ask for more work at a lesser pay rate. That rarely goes well.

Fourth, there is flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014), which occurs when people work in a zone beyond self-absorption, being one with the task. While the work effort itself might still be aversive as it demands the mustering of all available physiological and psychological resources, the person/organism plows ahead. The proverbial mountaineer puts one aching foot in front of the other. The end result is the pleasure of mastery. It is not at all clear that value is being added to the effort independent of the final result.

As to flow, Albert Camus (1955/1942) with is reflections on the myth of Sisyphos may have the last word. The gods designed Sisyphos’s work as a corporeal and psychological punishment. Sisyphos had to toil under the self-renewing illusion that his toil would bear fruit. The repeated frustration of the rock rolling down the hill never lost its edge, much like the toil of rolling the rock uphill never lost its painfulness. To punish Sisyphos, the gods suspended adaptation. A regular mortal might despair at this regimen. Just as the gods intended, most of us abhor attaching value to pointless effort. It takes a philosopher like Camus and a hero like Sisyphos to wring some happiness from that which is otherwise futile.

References

Camus, A. (1942/1955). The myth of Sisyphos. Hamish Hamilton.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology. Springer.

Gomperz, H. (1898). Kritik des Hedonismus: Eine psychologisch-ethische Untersuchung. [Critique of hedonism: A psychological-ethical inquiry]. Cotta.

Eisenberger, R. (1992). Learned industriousness. Psychological Review, 99, 248–267.

Hume, D. (1740/1978). A treatise of human nature. Oxford University Press.

Inglis, I. R., Forkman, B., & Lazarus, J. (1997) Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading. Animal Behaviour, 53, 1171–1191.

Inzlicht, M., Shenhav, A., & Olivola, C. Y. (2018). The effort paradox: Effort is both costly and valued. Trends in the Cognitive Sciences, 22, 337-349.

Krueger, J. I., & Funder, D. C. (2004). Towards a balanced social psychology: Causes, consequences and cures for the problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 313-327.

Krueger, J. I., Sundar, T., Gresalfi, E., & Cohenuram, A. (2021). Mozart and the effort paradox. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/202105/mozart-an…

Olivola, C., & Shafir, E. (2013). The martyrdom effect: when pain and effort increase prosocial contributions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 26, 91–105.

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