Effort Justification

Social psychology is amazing (at least, in my opinion!) in its ability to explain things that would otherwise be hard to understand. Take the topic of effort justification as one example. Cognitive dissonance theory postulates that people do not like to have two attitudes or beliefs that conflict with one another. Cognitive dissonance leads to an internal tension. For example, if I pay a lot of money to see Paul McCartney in concert, then upon attending the concert, found out he could no longer sing, I would have cognitive dissonance. (Note to the reader: This would be impossible! Paul McCartney would never disappoint me!) To reduce cognitive dissonance, people have to do one of several things: (1) change an attitude (“Well, I guess I always liked John Lennon more than Paul McCartney”); (2) change a perception of a behavior (“Paul can still sing some of his songs pretty well”); (3) add new, consonant, cognitions (“I always wanted to attend a concert at the Royal Albert Hall and I’m glad I saw Paul there”): (4) minimize the importance of the conflict between cognitions (“I don’t care if Paul can’t sing; he’s still good looking!”); or (5) reduce one’s perceived choice (“I knew I had to see Paul one last time”). People often go to great lengths to achieve cognitive consistency, sometimes leading to maladaptive behavior. In the case of justifying effort, when the desired outcome (seeing Paul McCartney in concert) is not worth the effort, people often change their minds to justify their suffering. This means that, in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, people convince themselves they made the correct decision. They try to exaggerate the positives of the chosen alternative while, at the same time, exaggerating the negatives of the unchosen alternative (“At least I didn’t spend money on tickets to a Rolling Stones concert. Mick Jagger probably sings worse than Paul McCartney.”). Understanding cognitive dissonance goes a long way in explaining why people do things that appear irrational to the casual observer. And, as a final note, there are never any cheap tickets to a Paul McCartney concert, but he’s worth the cost!

I suppose the question is, does working harder than necessary, overcoming obstacles, or paying more, make something better?  Does a meal taste better if you have to wait for a table?  Does scarcity make something more desirable?  Does engaging in a bidding war for something on eBay make one want the item more?  Does going through extra hurdles to buy a house make you committed to buying that house?  For many, the answers to these questions are obvious and THEY know it.  (Whoever they are.)  Some of the obstacles occur “naturally,” for example, when Melissa and I found out, upon arriving to the closing, that we could not buy a new house until the owner closed out a code violation for not re-planting a tree. The owner patently refused to buy a new tree, thus revealing her shortsighted willingness to forfeit the sale of her house. Was that tree enough to kill the deal?  The realtors, ours and hers, thought so; they hired someone to buy and plant the tree.  So we didn’t have to decide whether to back out on the contract.  But, the “theys” know that bidding for something, like on eBay, does drive up prices, on average.  Buyers have to know the most they are willing to pay and stop bidding when the price frenzy gets ridiculous.  Similarly, if the wait at the restaurant is too long (and especially if you see empty tables), that other restaurant down the block seems worth trying. We’ve found some great “replacement” restaurants that way.  I had not considered these examples as involving cognitive dissonance.  But, again, I’ve learned from Melissa in this regard.  A lesson that should remind us all to evaluate whether the effort and reward balance is in balance, or to ask, are we being played?  Realizing that many aspects of our lives are controlled by unseen forces can result in better outcomes, when decisions are grounded in a reality, not a manipulated game.  

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