Effort justification bias
“I evaluate an outcome relative to the amount of effort it took to achieve it.”
Effort justification suggests that we attach greater value to outcomes that take more effort to achieve . It often manifests as a way to combat the discomfort from cognitive dissonance, which is when our actions do not match our beliefs. By rationalizing that an effortful task will have a valuable outcome, we can make sense of why we spent so much time doing something in the first place, even if our efforts result in diminishing returns (e.g. waiting in a long line-up for food that doesn’t end up being good). To reduce cognitive dissonance either beliefs or actions must change, but often actions cannot be changed in retrospect. So we often re-conceptualize the situation to make us feel more at ease . We tell ourselves that waiting in the line-up will be well worth it in the end (effort justification), rather than just leaving. Effort Justification may also appear alongside post-purchase dissonance, which is the uncertainty of whether your purchase was the right choice. Post-purchase dissonance can further be offset with Effort Justification through augmented products, which are non-physical products that reinforce or add value (warranty, customer service) and also require more effort for you to engage with.
For an additional cost, Nike gives customers the option to customize their sneakers in an experience called Nike By You. You’re able to customize everything about the shoe down to its stitching. A truly curated product seems more worthy of our money because it generally takes more effort to create something more personalized. We tend to associate labour with value and recognize it first-hand when it comes to our own effortful hobbies that we value in part because we spend so much time doing them. That same feeling of ‘involvement’ can be elicited through co-creation in modern marketing tactics, where consumers are encouraged to be active participants in their brand experiences, increasing the perceived value of the product or company. Requiring consumers to put more effort into their purchases elicits the Effort Justification bias by making consumers naturally conflate effortful interaction with their evaluation of the brand.
Research suggests that Effort Justification manifests as a response to offset the discomfort from cognitive dissonance, where cognitive dissonance arises from a discrepancy between behaviour and cognition . Because behaviours cannot be changed in retrospect, individuals often change their thoughts and beliefs to reduce that discomfort. Effort Justification is one way to modify their cognition to make sense of why they would have put so much effort into something that ends up not having the best outcome.
There are many things that we do to offset the discomfort from cognitive dissonance, and this is one case where we could dig ourselves into a deeper hole by justifying our invested effort with more effort. Oftentimes it is easier to not change our behaviour, and continue doing what we think might work, rather than admit that all our effort was for nothing. One especially dangerous outcome of this is staying in abusive relationships. We may keep trying to save relationships that are toxic just because we have put so much effort into them in the first place, making us feel like they are worth all the effort . In a less serious context, Effort Justification could make it very hard for an iPhone user to switch to an Android, and vice versa, because of all the effort put into the purchasing and mastery of the systems.
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
We should define clear boundaries for effortful tasks and know when to walk away when diminishing returns appear.
Being critical of the fact that we tend to put on rose-coloured glasses when evaluating the projects we spent a lot of time on, may help us to be more objective about the quality of our work.
When met with experiential marketing messages, think critically about the company’s intentions, and whether your data could not only be used for their profits, but also to sway your perception of their brand.
Just as we feel great about things we put lots of effort in, we can feel terrible when we experience negative outcomes from those same things. We can scale back our expectations when it comes to effortful investments to help manage our reactions to negative outcomes.
How is this bias measured?
Effort Justification has been measured by asking participants to rate the value of an outcome that emerged from an effortful task compared to a non-effortful task. Effort varies between studies, from students’ effort to complete chemistry classes, to the physical effort it takes to click a button in a lab experiment. Often effortful tasks require more exertion physically or mentally and have a longer duration or frequency than the stimulus representative of the non-effortful task. The Effort Justification bias is measured when the effortful task is rated more highly than the non-effortful task.
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Jiga-Boy, Gabriela M., Claudia Toma & Olivier Corneille (2014). Work more, then feel more: The influence of effort on affective predictions. PloS one, 9(7), e101512.
 Zentall, Thomas R. (2010). Justification of effort by humans and pigeons: cognitive dissonance or contrast?. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(5), 296-300.
 Strube, Michael J. & Linda S. Barbour (1983). The Decision to Leave an Abusive Relationship: Economic Dependence and Psychological Commitment. Journal of Marriage and Family, 45(4), 785–793.
Individual level, Availability heuristic, Anchoring heuristic, Need for self-esteem, Need for cognitive consonance
Status Quo bias
Alanah Lam has a B.A. in Psychology & Charles Chang Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from Simon Fraser University. Her passion lies in examining how people derive value from their interactions with technology and each other, to deconstruct the ‘black box’ of what it means to be a happy user in this Information Age.
How to cite this entry
Lam, A. (2020). Effort justification bias. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 2. Online: www.shortcogs.com