Tuesday, January 14, 2020

People valorize the unproductive efforts of others in part because they believe such efforts reflect one’s inner virtues

Celniker, Jared, Andrew Gregory, Hyunjin Koo, Paul K. Piff, Peter Ditto, and Azim Shariff. 2020. “The Moralization of Unproductive Effort.” PsyArXiv. January 14. doi:10.31234/osf.io/nh9ax

Abstract: People believe that effort is valuable, but what kind of value does it confer? We find that displays of effort signal moral character. Importantly, we focus on displays of unproductive or unnecessary effort to highlight the heuristic nature of these intuitions—even “useless” effort is deemed virtuous. We conducted five studies to demonstrate the nature of these effects. In the domains of paid employment and charitable giving, the exertion of effort is deemed morally admirable (Studies 1-3) and is monetarily rewarded (Studies 1, 3, and 4), even when that effort results in no additional product. We test and find convergent patterns in a cross-cultural replication (Study 1b) and using a “big data” analysis of naturalistic donation behaviors (Study 4). We consider cultural and evolutionary accounts of effort moralization and discuss the implications of these effects for social welfare policy, automation, and the future of work.

General Discussion

Five studies, using multiple methodologies and cross-cultural samples, found that people ascribe greater moral value to greater exertions of effort, even when that effort is unproductive. Displays of effort serve as signals of one’s moral character, and these judgments inform decisions about how to allocate scarce monetary resources. People valorize the efforts of others in part because they believe such efforts reflect one’s inner virtues.
Our investigation refines previous research on effort evaluations and advances it in important ways. First, by explicitly controlling for productivity in our studies, we extend prior research (Amos, Zhang & Read, 2019) by showing that effort is valued even when it produces no value. Second, we provide the first discriminative evidence that effort cues affect moral evaluations specifically rather than positive character ascriptions more generally. Across four preregistered experiments, manipulating effort produced consistent differences in assessments of moral traits but not assessments of warmth or competence. These findings support theorizing that places moral character judgments at the center of impression formation (Goodwin, 2015; Uhlmann, Pizzaro & Diermeier, 2015). Finally, we broaden research on the martyrdom effect (Olivola & Shafir, 2013)—which has focused on manipulating one’s own commitment to a cause—by conceptually replicating it in paradigms focused on interpersonal moral judgments and real-world donation behaviors.

Unpacking Explanations of Effort Moralization
In addressing methodological limitations of prior work, limitations of a cultural explanation for effort moralization were also revealed. If PWE beliefs moralize effort, then inefficient effort should be denigrated because it is wasteful. Yet across our studies, participants consistently viewed unproductive effort as morally virtuous. Furthermore, individual differences
in participants’ work ethic beliefs did not moderate these effects, implying a limited role of PWE in explaining effort moralization. Finally, replicating one of our experiments in South Korea (including the failure of PWE beliefs to moderate valuations of effort) intimates that people moralize effort outside the West as well.
There is, in fact, some evidence that individuals in modern hunter-gatherer societies also moralize hard work (Smith & Apicella, 2019), suggesting that effort moralization may rest on more fundamental, and potentially evolutionary, origins. In the collaborative, group-living environments in which our species evolved, focusing on displays of costly signaling, like displays of effort, may have been an efficient and adaptive way to assess the cooperative intent of others (Gintis, Smith & Bowles, 2001). Partner choice markets can explain the use of competitive altruism as a signal of one’s value as a cooperation partner (Barclay, 2013), and effort may serve a similar function. This signaling account may provide a more parsimonious framework for conceptualizing effort moralization as a basic social heuristic. Rather than directly causing people to moralize effort, PWE beliefs may be scaffolded upon and exaggerate shared intuitions about the moral value of effort.
Cross-cultural replication of the current findings would seem a crucial next step in disentangling universal and culture-specific accounts of effort moralization. While South Korea is rooted in a distinct cultural tradition that has traditionally eschewed the overtly individualistic institutions and values of the U.S. (Hofstede, 1983), it is still a highly industrialized nation with some of the longest working hours in the OECD (OECD, 2019). Replications in societies that differ from the U.S. and South Korea on other dimensions would provide a more rigorous test of the role of culture in effort valuations.

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