Have you ever wanted to belong to a group or stay in a relationship that you were willing to put up with the pain that came along with it? Have people asked you why you stayed with someone despite the grief they gave you? You’re not alone if any of these situations happened to you. One theory that can explain this is effort justification.
The theory of effort justification is that people will believe a goal is worthwhile if they worked hard to get there. So even though they never reached their goal, they will justify their actions as worthwhile.
For example, think of fraternities and sororities. Why do people still go through hazing even though it can be emotionally and physically demanding? It’s because the more effort they put into gaining acceptance, the higher they will rate the group.
Effort justification is related to the psychological theory of Cognitive Dissonance, which says that when people’s actions and beliefs don’t align, they will experience discomfort. So in order to reduce the discomfort, they often change their beliefs to fit the behavior.
One famous study done on effort justification was the Aronson and Mills (1959) study entitled The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The aim of the study was to test if individuals who went through an unpleasant initiation to become members of a group would increase their liking for the group in comparison to individuals who did not go through a severe initiation. If you would like to see the procedure of the study here is the link.
The results supported the research hypothesis. The individuals in the study who went through a more severe initiation to join the discussion group rated the group higher and the individuals who did not go through a severe initiation had little investment in the group.
Like in every other study there are limitations, but it gives one reason why people end up in uncomfortable situations.