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People who reach a goal and then discover that it wasn’t worth the effort often feel the need to justify the effort they put into it. In this lesson, we’ll look at how people engage in effort justification, examine a classic study on the topic, and look at some real-world applications.

Effort Justification

Groucho Marx once famously said that he wouldn’t want to join any club that would take him as a member. Though humorous, this statement raises a good question.

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What makes a group or club worth belonging to? How do people decide which groups are worthwhile?Psychologists have one theory why people view groups and clubs as worthwhile. According to the theory of effort justification, people will believe a goal is worthwhile if they have worked hard to get there. So, even if they never reach their goal, they will justify their actions as being worthwhile.

The more effort people have to make to join a group, the higher they rate that group.
Effort to Join Group

In the club example, people will believe a group is worth belonging to if they have to make an effort to get in.

The more effort that they have to make to gain acceptance, the higher they will rate the club or group.Effort justification is based on the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, which says that when people’s behaviors and beliefs don’t align, they experience discomfort. To relieve that discomfort, people often change their beliefs to match their behavior.What does this have to do with effort justification? When a goal – say, belonging to a group – turns out to be not as worthwhile as they expected it to be, they will change their outlook to justify the effort they put into the goal.

Aronson and Mills Study

Let’s look at an example. A famous study conducted by Elliott Aronson and Judson Mills was conducted in the late 1950s. At the time, women were generally sheltered and expected to act like good girls.

Aronson and Mills told female participants that they were being considered to join a discussion group on the psychology of sexuality. Before they could join, though, they were asked to read aloud a group of words that related to sexuality so that they could make sure that they wouldn’t be too embarrassed to join in the discussion once they were accepted into the group.

Women who read more vulgar passages were more satisfied with the psychology of sexuality group.
More Effort Means Higher Satisfaction

The first group of women were asked to read words that were related to sexuality but were not vulgar, such as the words ‘virgin’ or ‘prostitute.’ The second group was asked to read aloud words that were vulgar, including slang for genitalia and four-letter words that described sex acts. They were also asked to read two vivid descriptions of sex acts taken from novels of the time.

Obviously, the second group had to work a lot harder to be accepted into the discussion group.After all that, the subjects then listened to a recording of a discussion about animal sexuality that was very dull and not at all titillating. Finally, the participants were asked to rate the group and its members.

The girls who were forced to read the more vivid and vulgar passages beforehand consistently rated the group higher than those who weren’t.Why would they do that? Well, they had endured an uncomfortable task to join the discussion group. When the group turned out to be uninteresting, they needed to justify the fact that they went through the tough initiation by convincing themselves that the group was interesting.It’s important to note that, most of the time, effort justification happens subconsciously. That is, people aren’t aware that they are engaging in effort justification. They do it automatically and without conscious thought.

Real-World Applications

In recent years, a lot of attention has turned towards the subject of hazing.

Across the United States, high school and college students take abuse from other students in order to join a group, such as a fraternity. Hazing rituals range from harmless pranks to dangerous and life-threatening abuse. One question that people ask when hazing scandals break is, ‘Why would anyone want to join that group if they had to endure hazing like that?’

Students who endure the worst hazing abuse usually see the group as most worthwhile.


Effort justification offers one answer to that question. In fact, according to effort justification, the students who endured the worst of the abuse are likely to see the group as the most worthwhile. If they join the group and then discover that it is not as fulfilling as they thought, they will try to justify the fact that they allowed themselves to be abused by convincing themselves that the group is worth it.

Lesson Summary

When people reach a goal and then discover that the goal was not worth the effort they put forward, they will feel that they need to justify their effort. As a result, they will convince themselves that the goal is more fulfilling than it is. This process is called effort justification, and it often happens when people join a club or endure hazing to join a group.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain the theory of effort justification
  • Define cognitive dissonance and understand how it relates to effort justification theory
  • Summarize research that shows how and why people engage in effort justification
  • Explain how effort justification can help describe students’ positive views of a group after experiencing hazing

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