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Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The moralization of effort

Celniker, J. B., et al. (2022).
Journal of Experimental Psychology:
General. Advance online publication.


People believe that effort is valuable, but what kind of value does it confer? We find that displays of effort signal moral character. Eight studies (N = 5,502) demonstrate the nature of these effects in the domains of paid employment, personal fitness, and charitable fundraising. The exertion of effort is deemed morally admirable (Studies 1–6) and is monetarily rewarded (Studies 2–6), even in situations where effort does not directly generate additional product, quality, or economic value. Convergent patterns of results emerged in South Korean and French cross-cultural replications (Studies 2b and 2c). We contend that the seeming irrationality of valuing effort for its own sake, such as in situations where one’s efforts do not directly increase economic output (Studies 3–6), reveals a “deeply rational” social heuristic for evaluating potential cooperation partners. Specifically, effort cues engender broad moral trait ascriptions, and this moralization of effort influences donation behaviors (Study 5) and cooperative partner choice decision-making (Studies 4 and 6). In situating our account of effort moralization into past research and theorizing, we also consider the implications of these effects for social welfare policy and the future of work.

General Discussion

Is effort deemed socially valuable, even in situations where one’s efforts have no direct economic utility? Eight studies using multiple methodologies and cross-cultural samples indicate that it is. We provided evidence of effort moralization—displays of effort increased the moral qualities ascribed to individuals (we did not, we should note, provide evidence of the specific process by which effort cues shift from having a nonmoral to moral status, a more limited definition of moralization; Rhee et al., 2019). Moreover, the moralization of effort guided participants’ allocations of monetary resources and selections of cooperation partners. These data support our argument that effort moralization is a “deeply rational” social heuristic for navigating cooperation markets (Barclay, 2013; Kenrick et al., 2009). Even in circumstances where effort was economically unnecessary, people believed such efforts reflected others’ inner virtues.


This evolutionary perspective may provide a more parsimonious framework for integrating research on effort evaluations: the “effort heuristic” (Kruger et al., 2004) may be more functionally dynamic than previously recognized, with effort moralization constituting one of its social functions. Thus, rather than directly causing people to moralize effort, cultural beliefs like the PWE may be scaffolded on evolved psychological mechanisms such as shared intuitions about the value of effort. The PWE (and similar work ethics among other populations) may have emerged, then, because it benefited from a combination of being well fit to our psychology (in appealing to an underlying tendency for effort moralization) and culturally useful (in promoting cooperation and industriousness; Henrich, 2020; Henrich & Boyd, 2016).

Note: Hardworking people are often seen as more moral than those perceived or believed as lazy. Yet people who work harder are not always more economically productive.  Capitalist fantasies play into these moral stereotypes.  Effort moralization plays right into misconceptions about poor people being lazy and rich people as hard workers.  Neither stereotype is accurate.