Here’s Why Athletes Love to Suffer
The effort paradox explains everything from mountain climbing to buying IKEA furniture
When you really think about it, “because it’s there” is not a very satisfying answer. That was the motivation George Mallory famously offered to a New York Times reporter in 1923 before heading off on his tragic third attempt to climb Mount Everest. Of course, Mallory had some reasonable incentives, too—reaching the highest point in the world for the first time, eternal fame, and so on. People who’ve followed in his footsteps also have their reasons. Even today, Everest summiters earn decent bragging rights.
But none of that explains why many of us head anonymously into the mountains or run midpack marathons—or, for that matter, do Sudoku puzzles or buy hard-to-assemble Swedish furniture. That’s the riddle that a new paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, by University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht and colleagues from Brown and Carnegie Mellon, explores. According to the prevailing models of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and economics, we’re wired to minimize effort whenever possible. But sometimes, Inzlicht and his colleagues argue, we value experiences and outcomes precisely because they’re hard, not in spite of that. That difficulty can add value, a surprise they call the effort paradox.
The classical view of effort is that “toil and trouble,” as Adam Smith called it in The Wealth of Nations back in 1776, subtracts from the value we assign to things. If you can purchase a coffee table that arrives in pieces with a bag of seemingly mismatched screws and some inscrutable pictographic instructions, or simply buy the same thing preassembled, economic theory predicts that you’ll be willing to pay more for the latter. But studies of the IKEA effect have found that we actually value the coffee table we’ve had to grapple with more highly.
Similar motivations seem to underlie much of what we do outdoors. Climbing a peak may offer fresh air and a view, but just getting to the top is rarely the goal for climbers these days. Instead, they seek out challenging routes. Similarly, runners may start out in the sport motivated by the desire to get healthier, but by the time they progress to ultramarathons their underlying goals have shifted. The first 100-miler you run may be fueled by a Mallory-esque inclination to find out what’s on the other side. But the second one is probably fueled by something else. In both climbing and running, beyond a certain level of experience, the effort required seems to be part of the allure.
Inzlicht and his colleagues present several frameworks for why this might be. One is cognitive dissonance: if you do something that’s really hard for an outcome that you don’t consider particularly valuable, you suffer an unpleasant disconnect that you assuage by convincing yourself that the outcome was valuable after all. If I worked so hard to get this, I must really like it, you tell yourself. As a result, you end up liking things that require effort.
Climbing a peak may offer fresh air and a view, but just getting to the top is rarely the goal for climbers these days.
Interestingly, other species display a fondness for rewards they’ve expended effort to obtain. Rats like food more if they’ve had to work for it. The effect shows up in locusts, too, which suggests that cognitive dissonance isn’t the whole story, since locusts don’t do a whole lot of introspecting about their motivations. Instead, it may be that rewards obtained from difficult tasks seem extra sweet because of the sharp contrast between the unpleasantness of working hard and the joy of achievement.
Both of these options assume that what we really value are the fruits of hard effort, rather than the effort itself. But that’s not necessarily the case. The theory of learned industriousness assumes that over time we learn that working hard leads to rewards, so we begin to value the effort itself, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell. Or we may simply be hard-wired to derive pleasure from full immersion in challenging tasks, as the notion of flow seems to suggest.
The paper doesn’t reach any conclusions about these theories. Instead, its goal is to point out the blind spot in current thinking about motivation, choice, and decision-making: sometimes having to work for something makes it more valuable, not less. And it closes with a series of questions that still need exploration, like why some people are drawn to effort more than others, and whether that trait can be trained or enhanced.
For me, Inzlicht’s paper recalls a ten-day hiking trip my wife, Lauren, and I took in 2012, along Tasmania’s rugged South Coast Track. What sets this trail apart from some of the island’s more well-known hiking routes is how absurdly unpleasant it is. The coastline is buffeted by nonstop winds from the Southern Ocean, and it rains 250 days a year. Even in midsummer, we were repeatedly pelted by hail so fierce that we had to take cover. Long stretches of trail disappeared under thigh-deep pools of mud crisscrossed by downed trees and surrounded by impenetrably dense, leech-infested scrub. Lauren and I have done a lot of hiking, sometimes in extremely tough conditions. This was the hardest we’d ever struggled.
The question we started to wrestle with after a few days was: Why? Sure, we liked the trail’s remoteness, and the landscape was beautiful in those rare moments when the fog lifted enough for us to see it. But we couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d been drawn to this ordeal precisely because of how grueling we’d heard it would be. I don’t know which of the theories Inzlicht discusses applies here, but I’m glad he’s asking the question—because six years later, that hike remains one of the highlights of my life, for reasons that I’m still not sure how to explain. It’s nice to think that maybe I’m not crazy after all.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available! For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science e-mail newsletter.