Effort Justification

Effort Justification Definition

Effort JustificationEffort justification is the idea that when people make sacrifices to pursue a goal, the effort is often rationalized by elevating the attractiveness of the goal. In other words, people sometimes come to love what they suffer to achieve. The effort justification hypothesis is derived from cognitive dissonance, one of the best-known theories in social psychology. Dissonance theory emphasizes how inconsistencies among important cognitions can be motivating, often by bringing one’s attitudes in line with one’s behavior. It has been broadly applied. With effort justification, the potentially dissonance-arousing question is whether the sacrifices one is making to achieve a goal are worth it.

The definition of effort used by dissonance theorists has been broad. It includes not only the literal expenditure of physical and mental energy but also sacrifices such as payment of a fee and enduring embarrassment. From the standpoint of the effort justification hypothesis, the exact nature of the effort is less important than its magnitude. In fact, some evidence suggests that, once a person is committed to a course of action, the mere anticipation of effort can lead to justification even before the effort is actually undertaken. Regardless of the nature of the effort or whether it is actual or anticipated, the underlying, dissonance-based logic is the same: motivated thinking to rationalize the effort.

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A straightforward effort justification prediction that has been supported by research is that the more effort that is expended on a task, the more the task will be liked. For example, when participants in an experiment are asked to perform a task such as circling numbers, the task is subsequently liked more when undertaken with instructions that make it high (vs. low) in effort.

Effort Justification Applications: Group Initiation Rituals

The relevance of effort justification for such processes as initiation into groups was evident early in cognitive dissonance research. In a classic experiment, participants were asked to pass an embarrassment-based screening test before being admitted into a discussion group on sex. The test was in fact bogus (all participants passed), but it allowed for a manipulation of effort required to enter the group. Participants who underwent a highly embarrassing screening subsequently rated both the group members and the discussion as significantly more interesting than did participants who undertook a mildly embarrassing screening (or no screening at all).

If effort enhances liking for, and commitment to, the group, it is easy to understand why many groups have initiation rituals that one must pass before becoming a full-fledged member. Hazing is a long-standing practice associated with Greek organizations in college and sports teams more generally. Military boot camps are grueling trials through which soldiers must pass. And anthropology provides many examples of societies that require difficult, and sometimes dangerous, rites of passage between adolescence and adulthood. From the standpoint of effort justification, these diverse activities accomplish a common outcome: greater attraction to the group.

Effort Justification Applications: Psychotherapy

Although psychotherapy can be undertaken for many reasons and can take many forms—cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, individual, group—in each case the client is required to expend effort to achieve a goal. If effort justification results in enhanced goal attractiveness, then the process might serve as a common factor that contributes to the success of diverse therapies.

Evidence for this comes from several studies that use therapies that are bogus from the standpoint of traditional theories of psychotherapy but which require the expenditure of effort. For example, people with snake phobia or who are underassertive might be asked to engage in physical exercise; overweight women might be asked to speak into a machine that makes fluent speech difficult; or speech-anxious participants might be asked to proofread. In each case, on subsequent behavioral assessments, the bogus therapy produced significant improvement compared to a lower-effort version of the same therapy or a no-therapy control group.

An interesting implication of this perspective is that if therapies are free, the motivation to engage in effort justification will be reduced. Even a nominal fee might take better advantage of cognitive dissonance.

Boundary Conditions for Effort Justification

Effort does not always enhance goal attractiveness. If it did, more children would like school and fewer marriages would end in divorce. Cognitive dissonance research has shown that people’s tendency to rationalize their behaviors is greatest when they see themselves as freely choosing the behavior (especially by public commitment), when the expected sacrifice is known beforehand, and when external justifications for the behavior are low. In the psychotherapy studies described previously, for example, the beneficial effects of effort therapies are seen only when participants’ choice for undertaking the procedures (as well as their aversive nature) is emphasized beforehand.

Even when conditions are ripe for dissonance, effort may not always lead to enhanced goal attractiveness. Other ways to rationalize the effort (suggested by decades of dissonance research) include minimizing one’s perception of the sacrifice being made or retrospectively minimizing one’s perceived choice for undertaking the effort.

Effort Justification Implications

At least two important implications seem to follow from effort justification. First, it is likely to have functional benefits for groups. By increasing attraction and commitment to the group, group cohesion and stability are enhanced. Second, effort justification is likely to increase persistence at tasks that are not altogether pleasant, especially when such tasks are seen as chosen. Many worthwhile outcomes in life require short-term sacrifice to achieve longer-term gain. By encouraging such sacrifice, effort justification is functional to the individual and the group.

Of course, what is functional is not always good. Attractive, cohesive groups may be more prone to group-think, and persistence at lost causes can be destructive. For example, the persistence of the American war effort in Vietnam in the face of escalating costs and decreasing likelihood of success has been analyzed using effort justification.


  • Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (1999). Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.