Why humans respect hard work regardless of results

Have you ever had a co-worker make a big show of how hard they work—even though they don't get great results? They do this because people attach moral value to hard work, something Dr. Azim Shariff calls "effort moralization."

Azim Shariff
Dr. Azim Shariff

Have you ever had a co-worker make a big show of how hard they work—even though they don’t get great results?

They do this because people attach moral value to hard work, something Dr. Azim Shariff calls “effort moralization.”

Dr. Shariff, Canada 150 Research Chair and social psychologist in UBC’s department of psychology, investigates how our often-ancient moral intuitions shape and respond to cultural institutions and technologies in the modern world. In a TED Talk released today, he discusses our tendency to value displays of effort and the impact that has on society.

Your research shows people attach moral worth to hard work, regardless of what the work produces. Why do we see mere effort as moral?

Because human life depends so much on cooperation with other people, we are constantly sizing up who are likely to make good cooperation partners. Any quality likely to make someone a better cooperation partner is seen as a moral quality. So generous people are seen as more moral—all the more willing to cooperate with you. People high in self-control are seen as more moral—all the more able to cooperate with you. Hard work is similar. Someone who shows that they are hardworking, also shows that they would—or at least can—work hard to help you out.

How can this become problematic when scaled up to the societal level?

Our social systems are built on top of and shaped by our psychological biases and heuristics—intuitions that serve as mental shortcuts. Effort moralization is a heuristic that leads us to value displays of effort. That can be a sensible at the individual level, but that tendency to attach moral value to effort leads us, as a society, to overvalue jobs that show off industriousness, rather than the creation of value. And parts of our jobs that involve hard work for its own sake get maintained in the economy, sopping up the labour of people who could be putting that time elsewhere—in more productive or enjoyable or meaningful aspects of their lives. And since that labour has to be paid for, ultimately by the consumer, effort moralization ends up imposing a tax we all pay.

What is workism and how can it negatively impact us?

Workism is a term coined by the journalist Derek Thompson for the elevation of work from being merely the thing people do to make a living, to something more: a source of meaning and self-worth. For many, work has gone from being a job to a career to a “calling.” This has left many with a quasi-religious devotion to their work. For some people, that’s great. It’s a valuable source of meaning in a time when participation in actual religions is declining. But, for others, it can be insidious. Some may expect their work to fill this special role and be frustrated when it fails to. Others may find themselves trapped in a culture of workism. Even though they don’t want their work to fill such a central role in their lives, they are forced to compete with those who do. They may find their character measured by the yardstick of hard work, even when there are other values they’d rather prioritize.

Lastly, what steps can we take to shift our perception of “hard work”?

I want to make sure the message of the talk isn’t “hard work is bad.” Hard work has been essential to everything we’ve built in our civilization. Moreover, hard work can be character-building, especially in our formative years. But I would encourage people to examine why they are engaging in the hard work they are doing. People—especially my fellow workaholics—should ask themselves whether their labour is devoted to producing things of value, or whether they have just become pressured by or caught up in a culture that, with a moment of consideration, they realize they don’t support.