Hard Work Always Pays Off… or So We’ve Convinced Ourselves

Our society attaches moral value to hard work for its own sake, but in an age of increasing automation, is that creating backwards incentives?


In study after study, social psychologist Azim Shariff has seen that humans attach moral value to hard work, no matter whether that effort leads to better results. Repeating these studies internationally, he sees this same phenomenon across vastly different cultures.

In his TED@Destination Canada talk, he shares hypothetical stories about workers. Take, for example, two factory workers producing the same number of widgets, of the same quality and with the same output per shift. But for one of them, the task takes much more effort than for the other. When study participants are asked what they think about that worker, many might say they seem less competent, but they are also seen as more moral because of their struggle.

Shariff explains that this can make sense on an individual level, because that hardworking co-worker might be perceived as a better co-operator — more likely to pitch in their fair share no matter how difficult or meaningless the task. But these questions are particularly relevant today as technology is increasingly capable of doing certain tasks just as well as a person can. And when we scale up this concept of hard work on an individual level to a societal level, we might be placing value on the wrong things.

Here’s another hypothetical: thanks to an advanced piece of software, the job of a medical scribe becomes possible without any human effort. Nonetheless, an employer decides to honour the contracts of their scribes, offering to let them keep working or be relieved of their duties for the remainder of their contracts, and either way their salaries would be paid out. Even though there would be no loss of quality or productivity if the workers chose to abandon their posts, observers saw the workers who stayed and kept plugging away as being more moral.

“What makes sense at the individual level can still become very problematic when scaled up to the societal level,” said Shariff, professor and Canada Research Chair in psychology at the University of British Columbia.

“Our intuition that effort is good for its own sake, regardless of what it produces, has created a work environment with perverse incentives. When we start attaching worth to activity rather than to productivity, we start caring more about whether somebody is a hard worker than whatever it is that that work was supposed to achieve. And this can come at a very steep human cost.”

Part of that human cost is billed directly to the workers, who may feel pressure to keep chugging on tasks that no longer carry value or meaning, because their worth is tied to their identity as hard workers. We see this all the time, where people are seen as more virtuous if they don’t see their work as a job but as a calling that they are devoted to.

But when certain tasks become truly obsolete, people could be re-directing their time and creativity to things like their health, their education, or their communities, and on their own terms.

Even as advancements could be freeing us up to pursue different aspects of our lives, we remain attached to the idea that long hours and effort in our jobs should be a goal in and of itself. We run into massive resistance to robust social safety nets and programs like universal basic income.

Hard work can be incredibly meaningful, and it can be the path to even greater achievement. We need to distinguish when effort truly adds value and build incentives that lead to those goals.


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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.