The Aronson and Mills Experiment: Effort Justification

What do we value more? How does the effort we invest in it influence us? What does it mean when it comes to membership of certain groups? The results of a curious experiment tell us.
The Aronson and Mills Experiment: Effort Justification

Last update: 26 June, 2022

The kinds of objectives that are the hardest for us to achieve, demand considerably more energy, and that we have to fight for, are what we consider to be the most valuable. This is known as effort justification and it was studied in an experiment conducted by Aronson and Mills in 1959. In fact, their research was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.

The researchers hypothesized that there might be a cognitive bias involved. In other words, perhaps people value more something that involves more effort because they give great importance to the time and energy invested and not necessarily because it has a higher value.

Let’s see what the conclusions of the Aronson and Mills experiment tell us about effort justification.

The secret of my happiness is not to strive for pleasure, but to find pleasure in effort .”

-André Gide-

Worried man working
The more effort we make for something, the more we value it.

The basic premises

The Aronson and Mills experiment started from the premise that people associate the value of any achievement with the level of difficulty it entails. For example, there are large companies that have extremely strict selection processes. Interestingly, they’re also the companies that receive the most requests from people for jobs, and not always because they offer better conditions. It appears that the difficulty of entering the company seems to stimulate the prospective employees’ desire to apply.

Aronson and Mills’ experiment focused on situations like this. They started from the hypothesis that the more barriers there are to entering a group, the more the individuals’ interest in belonging to it increases.

Their hypothesis was complemented by the idea that this type of situation gives rise to a cognitive bias. In fact, people fail to appreciate these achievements objectively, but they automatically attach great value to them, simply because of the difficulty they entail.

The Aronson and Mills experiment

The researchers recruited 63 female volunteers. They were all university students. Each one was received personally by an experimenter who informed them that they were looking for a person to join a group in which discussions about sex were held.

The participants were randomly assigned to three different initiation groups. The first two groups were told that they had to ‘pass’ this process to be admitted to the group. In the first group, participants were asked to read aloud 12 obscene words and two explicit descriptions of sexual activity. The second group was asked to read out words that were related to sex but not particularly embarrassing, such as virgin and prostitute. They had to speak into a microphone and were told that they were being broadcast to the pre-existing group. The third group wasn’t given any texts to read. After the readings, all of the participants were told that they could proceed to the next part of the experiment.

The procedure

The participants were told they were to attend a group discussion (which was actually a recording) where a text entitled, The Sexual Behavior of Animals would be discussed. Each volunteer was left alone but was able to connect to the supposed group meeting using a headset and microphone. However, they were asked not to contribute and only to listen. The recording contained an extremely boring and monotonous discussion, with little relevant information.

Women making a video call
Giving more value to achievement when overexertion has been made decreases cognitive dissonance.

The results

The results of the Aronson and Mills experiment were consistent with their initial hypothesis. In fact, 97 percent of the participants who’d read the most obscene and highly sexual texts considered the debate given in the supposed first meeting of the group to be extremely interesting.

Of those who’d read the less explicit texts, 21 percent were of the same opinion. Nevertheless, only 13 percent of those who hadn’t read any text considered that the debate had been interesting. This proved that, despite the fact that the discussion was of a low level, the participants who’d had to make a greater effort to enter the group valued it more.

The researchers noted that this overvaluation occurs to avoid cognitive dissonance. It seems that one way to justify the extra effort made is by giving more value to the achievement, whether or not it is, in reality, more valuable. On the other hand, the less effort required, the more critical people are.

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  • Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177–181. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0047195.