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Does working hard make you a good person?
Social psychologist Azim Shariff on why we confuse hard work with moral goodness
“Hard work can be extremely meaningful when it serves a purpose. … But how much of the effort we spend is done to build nothing but our own moral reputations?”
Social psychologist Azim Shariff challenges our modern work culture’s tendency to glorify hard work—even when it doesn’t produce something meaningful. In fact, according to Azim’s research, we view people who work hard as being more moral. This way of thinking guides us in choosing our social circles but it can also feed into the toxic expectations of hustle culture and workism. To get away from this, Azim suggests prioritizing meaningful output over pure effort.
You can catch the complete episode (19 minutes) on Spotify.
We value effort regardless of what that effort produces—so much so that we think of hard workers (people who put in more effort) as being more moral. This is effort moralization.
For example, in one study by Azim, participants looked at the GoFundMe pages of two athletes running for a cause: one running a marathon, the other a 5k. When given $99 to allocate between the two runners, the marathon runner received more donations—and was also rated as more moral.
Effort moralization isn’t unique to a particular culture. Looking at research in France, South Korea, and Tanzania, it appears to be a universal part of human nature.
At the individual level, effort moralization makes sense as a way to decide who makes a good partner, romantically or otherwise. This is the concept of partner choice. We want to surround ourselves with “good” people—people who seem generous, fair, and cooperative. Someone who’s willing to expend effort, even in a meaningless task, seems like a better person to have in your corner than a total slacker.
Ever notice an “effort arms race” in school or at work? That could be classmates or coworkers bent on one-upping each other, whether by studying or working longer. These are examples of how, scaled up to an organizational level, effort moralization can become problematic. It makes us value hard work and effort more than results. And it can fuel workaholism as well as workism—the belief in work as your main source of identity.
Perverse incentives are rewards that drive undesirable consequences, contrary to the original intentions behind them. A story to illustrate: During British rule in India, colonial Delhi was overrun by cobras. In hopes of combatting the infestation, authorities put up a bounty for every cobra skin brought in. But some crafty locals began breeding more cobras to cash in on the reward. Eventually, the government ended the bounty program. No longer motivated to continue raising snakes, the breeders released them into the city—making the cobra problem worse than before.
Azim shares this story as an analogy to modern work culture’s emphasis on hard work. “We have built a culture that asks for the wrong thing,” he says. ”If all we ask from each other is the effort that we put in, we will create a world full of effort and of hard labor and of cobras. But if what we ask from each other is to produce something meaningful, we will create a world full of meaning.”
As a professor, Azim used to send emails as late as 2 or 3 am. While Azim hadn’t expected his students to work the same hours, one of the grad students in his lab eventually revealed he’d been scheduling his replies to match his professor’s timing. “I'd clearly sent the wrong message,” Azim recalls, “so much so that my student was willing to delay the work to make it seem like he was more industrious.” To avoid creating this kind of effort arms race in the workplace, podcast host Modupe Akinola suggests two strategies:
For those who work unusual hours, take advantage of Gmail’s or other email services’ scheduling option to postpone messages for work hours—the opposite of what Azim’s grad student did.
Alternatively, include a disclaimer in your email signature that sets your response expectations (or lack of them). Something like “I do not expect you to respond to my email outside of your working hours” or “I respect your working pattern and look forward to hearing from you when you are able to respond.”
Whoa. Learning about effort moralization was like taking the blinders off. The value of hard work is so deeply ingrained in me that I'd never thought to question it. Still, Azim's talk totally resonates—and it's fascinating to recollect so many past instances where hard work (or the perception of it) seemed to raise someone's status.
I'm thinking back to my undergrad years, where, at a university that attracted a lot of high-achieving nerds (including myself), people studying the liberal arts were known as "academs." Or to some, "slackadems." (Me, by the way.) The engineering and science majors had a more industrious reputation, although of course not everyone bought into these stereotypes.
Azim's talk also made me think about the performative aspect of hard work—how we signal to other people all the effort we put into stuff. I don't think it's all bad: sharing about your hard work is honest, celebratory, inspiring. How boring would our social lives be if no one shared about the grind behind an accomplishment? Certainly not everyone is participating in some weird moral one-upmanship, but Azim gives an interesting reframe for judging effort. Good food for thought for the next LinkedIn humble-brag post that shows up on my feed.
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