What is it about?

Hardworking people are often seen as more moral than those believed to be lazy. Yet people who work harder are not always more economically productive. How do people judge individuals who are equally productive but differ in the amount effort they invest in an activity? In the US, France, and South Korea, we found that high-effort individuals were perceived as more moral than their less effortful counterparts. That is, high-effort individuals were rated as having stronger moral character traits (e.g., "Dedicated," "Honest," "Trustworthy") than low-effort individuals, even in situations where their efforts did not lead to increased or improved output.

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Why is it important?

We showed that unproductive effort increases perceptions of moral character traits across three countries with distinct work cultures. Our findings suggest that these character judgments are not reducible to Protestant Work Ethic beliefs or to quirks of American workaholism. Additionally, our research is relevant to discussions of social welfare policies in an era of historic income inequality and increasing economic destabilization. Automation, pandemics, and economic shifts are making paid employment an increasingly unreliable avenue for people to develop social and monetary capital. Highlighting people's many unpaid efforts - like community service and familial caretaking - may help advocates increase support for policies (e.g., universal basic income) that make some level of monetary support independent of paid employment.


I hope this work helps people reflect on how they judge others and the types of public policies they endorse based on those judgments. We are rarely in a position to witness the full extent to which people are trying to improve their own lives and the lives of others, yet we may quickly judge whether they deserve our trust and support based on incomplete snapshots of their efforts. Studying the psychology of effort can help us develop social and economic systems that are better rooted in an appreciation of peoples' inherent dignity.

Jared Celniker
University of California Irvine

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This page is a summary of: The moralization of effort., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, July 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/xge0001259.
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