Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

That hurt – I must have liked it

October 4th, 2010

Put down your shocked expressions: we’re not talking about masochism here. Believe it or not, there are other circumstances in which experiencing pain leads to increased satisfaction.


Let me tell you a story about a psychology experiment. It even has sex in it, for those of you who were disappointed about the masochism thing.

two little birdsIn the late 1950s, Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills were curious about why people who had gone to a lot of trouble or inconvenience to gain something tended to value it more than people who had gone to less trouble. Was it just that only the people who valued it were willing to go to the extra trouble? Or did it have something to do with the arduous process itself?

bumblebees on thistleTo find out, Aronson and Mills told 63 female college students that they would be participating in an experiment about group discussion dynamics. Since the subject of the discussions would be sex, they asked whether the students would feel comfortable discussing it, and they all said they would.

A third of the students (chosen randomly) were then told they could participate, and they made up the “control group”. Another third (the “mild initiation” group) were told they had to pass an “embarrassment test” before joining: they had to read aloud some words related to sex, such as “prostitute” and “petting”. The final third (the “severe initiation” group) were also told they had to pass the embarrassment test, but they were asked to read aloud a list of more unprintable words plus two vivid descriptions of sexual activity taken from novels (and this was 1958). Everybody passed.

Then each of the students was allowed to listen to an ongoing “group discussion” (actually a recording).  As Aronson and Mills put it, “The recording was… deliberately designed to be as dull and banal as possible… The participants spoke dryly and haltingly on secondary sex behavior in the lower animals, ‘inadvertently’ contradicted themselves and one another, mumbled several non sequiturs, started sentences that they never finished, hemmed, hawed, and in general conducted one of the most worthless and uninteresting discussions imaginable.”

The students were then asked to rate the discussion and the participants. As you might imagine, the control group and “mild initiation” group thought they were awful. However, the “severe initiation” students gave both the discussion and the participants significantly higher marks.

The underlying psychological quirk that causes this is called “cognitive dissonance”. Essentially, trying to maintain an attitude or carry out an action that clashes with our self-perception can cause enough discomfort that we change the attitude or action.

In this case, if we go to a lot of effort for something that turns out not to be worth it, we reduce the dissonance between the self-perception “I only go to a lot of trouble for valuable things” and the belief “this wasn’t valuable” by changing the belief. It’s also called “effort justification”

We’d all like to believe this kind of rationalization doesn’t apply to us, but it generally does. In Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, Aronson discussed this study:

“After each participant had finished, I explained the study in detail and went over the theory carefully. Although everyone who went through the severe initiation said that they found the hypothesis intriguing and that they could see how most people would be affected in the way I predicted, they all took pains to assure me that their preference for the group had nothing to do with the severity of the initiation. They each claimed that they liked the group because that’s the way they really felt. Yet almost all of them liked the group more than any of the people in the mild-initiation condition did.”

So, how to apply this? The obvious tactic is that if you want someone to really value something, make them jump through a lot of hoops to get it. That sounds unkind, but think of it this way: if your child saves her own allowance for the latest toy, she really will appreciate it more.

If membership in your organization requires prospective members to do more than provide a name and email address – perhaps to write something about the reason they want to become a member? – they will feel more satisfied when they achieve membership.

Some of the women in a weight loss study were asked to put in extra effort that was unrelated to weight loss. Those women were more likely to lose weight and keep it off, perhaps because the extra effort made the goal of weight loss more appealing.

Of course, this doesn’t apply everywhere: making it more difficult to donate to your cause will not cause people to feel better about donating. I’d love to hear of any other examples that you’ve run across or you think might work.

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