Hurts So Good
John, a soldier in the U.S. Army, has just completed his paratrooper course. He waits patiently in line to receive the coveted parachute pin. At last, his superior officer stands in front of him, lines the pin up against his chest, and pounds it in so hard that it pierces John’s flesh. Ever since, he opens his top shirt button at every opportunity to showcase the small scar. Decades later, he has thrown away all the memorabilia from his time in the army, except for the tiny pin, which hangs in a specially made frame on his living-room wall.
Mark single-handedly restored a rusty Harley-Davidson. Every weekend and holiday went into getting it up and running; all the while his marriage was approaching breakdown. It was a struggle, but finally Mark’s prized possession was road-ready and gleamed in the sunshine. Two years later, Mark desperately needs money. He sells all his possessions—the TV, the car, even his house—but not the bike. Even when a prospect offers double the actual value, Mark does not sell it.
John and Mark are victims of effort justification. When you put a lot of energy into a task, you tend to overvalue the result. Because John had to endure physical pain for the parachute pin, it outshines all his other awards. And since Mark’s Harley cost him so many hours—and also nearly his wife—he prizes the bike so highly that he will never sell it.
Effort justification is a special case of “cognitive dissonance.” To have a hole punched in your chest for a simple merit badge borders on the absurd. John’s brain compensates for this imbalance by overvaluing the pin, hyping it up from something mundane to something semisacred. All of this happens unconsciously and is difficult to prevent.
Groups use effort justification to bind members to them—for example, through initiation rites. Gangs and fraternities initiate new members by forcing them to withstand nauseating or vicious tests. Research proves that the harder the “entrance exam” is to pass, the greater the subsequent pride and the value they attach to their membership. MBA schools play with effort justification in this way: They work their students day and night without respite, often to the point of exhaustion. Regardless of whether the course work proves useful later on, once the students have the MBAs in the bag, they’ll deem the qualification essential for their careers simply because it demanded so much of them.
A mild form of effort justification is the so-called IKEA effect. Furniture that we assemble ourselves seems more valuable than any expensive designer piece. The same goes for hand-knitted socks. To throw away a handcrafted pair, even if they are tatty and outdated, is hard to do. Managers who put weeks of hard work into a strategy proposal will be incapable of appraising it objectively. Designers, copywriters, product developers, or any other professionals who brood over their creations are similarly guilty of this.
In the ’50s, instant cake mixes were introduced to the market. A surefire hit, thought the manufacturers. Far from it: Housewives took an instant disliking to them—because they made things too easy. The firms reacted and made the preparation slightly more difficult (beating in an egg yourself). The added effort raised the ladies’ sense of achievement and, with it, their appreciation for convenience food.
Now that you know about effort justification, you can rate your projects more objectively. Try it out: Whenever you have invested a lot of time and effort into something, stand back and examine the result—only the result. The novel you’ve been tinkering with for five years and that no publisher wants: Perhaps it’s not Nobel-worthy after all. The MBA you felt compelled to do: Would you really recommend it? And the woman you’ve been chasing for years: Is she really better than bachelorette number two who would say yes right away?