Is Suffering a Virtue?
Why we value effort.
Posted August 27, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Across different contexts, people intuitively link effort with value.
- This association can be a useful social heuristic, allowing us to infer desirable character traits.
- The evaluation of effort is also implicated in some of our most meaningful activities.
- As with all heuristics, this one too can backfire, resulting in waste, burnout, and unsound priorities.
When I got my first job as a waiter, my boss insisted that we never sat down during our 14-hour shifts. Even when no customers were in sight and all tasks had been completed, we were to stand upright, not so much as ever touching a chair. My colleagues and I tried arguing that getting some rest every now and then would allow us to be more productive overall, especially since there was ample idle time between the peak hours of lunch and dinner. But he would have none of it. Looking up from his chair, he explained that if people walked in and saw the staff not working, they would get a bad impression of the establishment.
He is not alone in believing that there is something intrinsically worthy about effort.
Effort as a sign of value
In a new paper, researchers from the universities in California and British Columbia reported a series of studies showing that people intuitively attribute moral value to effort.
People in the US, South Korea, and France judged employees to be more moral when they worked harder, even if the extra effort did not produce more or higher quality products. They also judged those who strived to complete a task as better people compared to those who produced the same outcome effortlessly. These findings extended to non-productive activities, like exercising: people preferred to interact with a person who struggled through a 5K run than with someone who completed the exact same run without suffering. They also preferred to support a fundraiser who ran a marathon rather than one who ran a shorter distance.
These results add to lengthy literature suggesting that effort is linked to conceptions of value. At first glance, this is puzzling. From a rational economic perspective, those who can do the same job with less effort should be preferred, because they are more skilled and have more potential. In fact, study participants acknowledged this by judging those who exerted more effort for the same outcome to be less competent, but still saw them as more moral. What is more, these results are striking in an evolutionary sense. Natural selection does not favor wasteful traits. Why would this psychological predisposition to attribute value to inefficient behaviors be so widespread?
Effort as a sign of commitment
In reality, our intuitions about effort may provide a useful heuristic. Those who are more devoted to a cause should be willing to put more effort into it. By observing their effort, therefore, we can assess something less observable: their level of commitment.
This heuristic is particularly handy in situations where commitment to social norms is crucial but hard to discern, such as in groups tied by a common ideology — think of religions, armies, or criminal gangs. These groups often have strict, publicly observable requirements for membership, such as costly rituals. Through investments of effort (time spent on weekly church attendance or the pain of going through an initiation), group members signal their cooperative intentions by declaring their willingness to uphold the group’s traditions, norms, and ideals. Indeed, studies show that participants in costly rituals are seen as more dedicated and trustworthy, are preferred as cooperative partners, and are considered better mates.
The effort heuristic is so useful for deciphering other people’s actions that our mind inadvertently applies it even inwards, to our own behaviors. Some of the most meaningful things in our lives require a lot of effort: completing an education, building a career, and raising children. But it often also works the other way around: things that require struggle and even suffering as seen as more meaningful. Running a marathon, climbing a mountain, learning to play a musical instrument, and taking part in costly rituals. These are things that are not in themselves productive but are parts of a life well-lived.
When intuitions go awry
There is, however, a caveat. Despite their utility, our intuitions about their value of effort can often lead us astray. As the authors of the study note, phenomena like workaholism, the fetishization of work, opposition to welfare, and the proliferation of bullsh*t jobs in modern capitalist societies may be evidence of this far-reaching heuristic running amok. Applied in the wrong context, our intuitions can backfire. Case in point, my boss’s insistence on effort for effort’s sake contributed to creating a chronically tired and demoralized workforce.
Celniker, J., Gregory, A., Koo, H., Piff, P. K., Ditto, P. H., & Shariff, A. (2020, January 14). The Moralization of Effort. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/nh9ax
Inzlicht, M., Shenhav, A., & Olivola, C. Y. (2018). The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(4), 337–349.
Xygalatas, D (2022). Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. London: Profile Books.
Xygalatas, D., P. Maňo, R. Kundt & E. Kundtová-Klocová (2022). Rituals as signals of mate quality. Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology 3: 100048
Power, E. A. (2017). Discerning devotion: Testing the signaling theory of religion. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(1), 82–91.
Bloom, P. (2021). The Sweet Spot. The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. New York: HarperCollins.