Learn to spot the effort paradox or it could quietly make your life harder

BySukanya Datta
Aug 03, 2023 02:03 PM IST

The human brain is hard-wired for effort. It was so integral to our survival, we evolved to enjoy it for its own sake. See how that could be hurting you today.

Are you literally trying too hard? Fresh research suggests that the human brain is so hard-wired to effort — because it was only through immense effort, constant innovation and collaboration that a species as weak as ours was able to survive — that millions of years on, we’re unable to turn it off.

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It’s the drive to strive that led to the toaster and the telephone, put humans on the moon.

Through the course of modern psychology, this imperative has been studied as a cost — of survival, of innovation and of discovery.

In recent years, the outlook has changed. Researchers are now studying effort in its role as a core component of a goal. They call it the effort paradox. We seek out hard work because we have evolved not just to value it, but to enjoy it, even when it is not mandatory.

It’s why we pay more for complex furniture that we must then assemble ourselves. Why we spend hours on puzzles made up of letters, numbers, or bits of cardboard. (What else but some ancient imperative can explain the passion for sudoku?)

“We sometimes select objects or activities precisely because they require effort,” says Michael Inzlicht, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and co-author of The Effort Paradox, the research paper that coined the term in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, in 2018. “Effort allows us to meet our true potential,” Inzlicht adds.

In their research, he, Amitai Shenhav of Brown University and Christopher Y Olivola of Carnegie Mellon University examined studies from a range of different fields, including neuroscience, economics and biology.

One of these was titled The ‘Ikea Effect’: When Labor Leads to Love. Conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School, AB Freeman School of Business and Duke University in 2011. It concluded that people pay more for objects that they must assemble themselves because the pleasure and sense of achievement become packaged with the product. “The researchers also found that people love their assembled furniture, with its imperfections, more than the exact same piece built perfectly by an expert,” Inzlicht says.

The Effort Paradox team also cites the principle of learned industriousness, coined by psychologist Robert Eisenberger to describe how individuals who are rewarded for working hard start to find effort rewarding in itself, even to the extent that they think it is the effort that begets the reward.

“We… have an intuitive understanding of effort’s potential positive value,” the Effort Paradox paper states. And if effort is consistently rewarded (with positive reinforcement, the praise of one’s peers, material returns, etc), that becomes a secondary reinforcer.

What significance does this revised outlook have, for our lives today?

In a time of performative living, hyper-capitalism, hustle culture and the prevalent fear of missing out, understanding the paradoxical nature of effort can help one seek balance. Understanding this neglected aspect of this paradox can “provide clues about how to promote sustained mental effort across time,” as the paper puts it.

Over-valuing and over-prioritising effort can build a loop of goal-chasing and stress-embracing, even without adequate reward. When the cost-benefit equation is upturned in this fashion, the fallout can be hard to manage. An adventure sport can go from calculated risk to uncalculated one. Work can turn into an adventure sport that puts one’s health and relationships at risk.

In an ongoing research project leading from the last one, Inzlicht and his two colleagues are studying the meaning individuals derive from their efforts. Describing the preliminary results from their surveys of 1,468 students and professionals, Inzlicht says that those who attach meaning to effort “have better jobs… might get better grades and are, for the lack of a better word, happy workers. They have lower levels of burnout and are more productive.”

It boils down to periodically evaluating why one is exerting effort, says clinical psychologist Pragya Lodha, Mumbai programme director with the non-profit organisation Minds Foundation. “This makes the difference between feeling confident and rewarded vs feeling burnout, stressed, exhausted, isolated, or any combination of those.”

Return, periodically, to the fundamental question, Lodha adds. “Does this still bring me joy?”

How does internalised capitalism interact with the effort paradox? “It’s the dark side, says Inzlicht. “You might push yourself to your breaking point.” Click here to read Wknd the story on productivity dysmorphia.

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