When is effort a positive?

It’s good to look feminine and attractive, yet not look like you expended any effort to do so. That was the contention recently tackled in a recent journal article called “Beauty, Effort, and Misrepresentation”.  

The researchers were interested in whether women who expended greater effort in their beauty routines were perceived differently, and indeed that’s what they found. For me this again highlights the impact effort, or perceived effort, has on how people relate to each other, to our businesses, and to the world more generally.

Maybe she’s born with it, maybe she’s socially conditioned

Maybelline’s “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan taps into the premise that women shouldn’t be seen to try too hard. Why? Because according to Samper, Yang and Daniels’ research, outlined in the article above, women who are seen to put more effort into looking good are judged to have poorer moral character on the basis that they are misrepresenting themselves.

Across a series of seven studies, the researchers gave participants vignettes describing a woman and her beauty routine before asking what they thought of her. In the first study, “Jenna” either took 90 minutes to do her hair and makeup (“high-effort) or 10 minutes (“low effort”). Participants thought the high-effort Jenna would be more likely to inflate her work expenses, lie on her resume and take office supplies home. In another study, high-effort Jenna was judged less moral, ethical and genuine than her low-effort counterpart.

In short, high-effort was code for being disingenuous. If you have to try so hard to present yourself, then you must be hiding significant flaws.

Trying hard is okay, sometimes

The research delved further into the mechanism underpinning effort, exploring the degree to which goal permanence and scale impacted perception. More specifically, efforts may be judged differently depending on their degree of transience (i.e. temporary or enduring) and transformation (i.e. small or large change).

Transient effort is that which results in a temporary outcome, such as applying makeup that is washed off at night. Exercising to improve one’s body, on the other hand, is a form of  less transient effort because the results are more enduring. In this case, participants were found to perceive someone expending high-effort in a transient scenario (e.g. 90 minutes on grooming) to be misrepresenting herself more than someone in a high-effort, less transient condition (e.g. 90 minutes of exercise).

Transformative effort speaks to the degree of desired change. In this case, an attractive woman engaging in high-effort grooming was perceived as misrepresenting herself less than a woman with average attractiveness. As the researchers state:

“When women are average in attractiveness or no appearance information is given, engaging in an effortful cosmetics routine increases misrepresentation, leading to derogations of moral character. When women are attractive, engaging in such a routine affects misrepresentation, but not enough to change perceived moral character, suggesting people have a tolerance or expectation of some discrepancy between the unadulterated and made-up self.”

The situation made me do it

Taking it further, the researchers were interested in whether pointing to an external rationale for the behaviour would change how effort was perceived. Sure enough, when participants read that Jenna was expending high-effort on her appearance because she was attending an event where prospective employers were present, she was not as harshly judged.

What was happening here? Participants were reminded of a social norm — how first impressions matter — and that was sufficient to justify Jenna’s efforts. It seems effort may be okay as long as it can be attributed to the situation rather than character.

I’ll buy because we’re worth it, not because I am

In a final study, the researchers created ads for “Colorescience” and had participants indicate their purchase intent. The ads variously portrayed the cosmetics as either:

  • high or low effort (10 minutes, precise steps vs. less than three minutes, three simple steps); and
  • an internal or external attribution (“Being Yourself Matters” vs. “First Impressions Matter”).
Bri Williams 28 May

Source: Supplied

They found people were less willing to purchase the cosmetics that were high-effort with an internal attribution. Again from the researchers:

“When Colorescience products were positioned as helping customers ‘be themselves’, thereby encouraging internal attributions, we replicated our prior studies where customers of effortful beauty products were rated as engaging in greater misrepresentation and possessing poorer moral character. In turn, misrepresentation and moral character ratings led to reduced purchase intentions for Colorescience when it required high versus low effort. However, when these products were positioned as helping customers make a good first impression and thus encouraging external attributions, effort did not significantly affect any of these variables”.

If this research is right, it looks like L’Oreal might have been justified in changing its original tag line “Because I’m worth it” to “Because you’re worth it” in 1997, and then to “Because we’re worth it” in 2009, shifting from an internal rationale to a collective norm.

It is the relationship between effort and societal expectations that I find most interesting about this research, particularly because it tests how norms may help people justify purchase decisions.

Of course, the study is relying on self-reported rather than observed behaviour, so just because a participant says they would purchase a product doesn’t mean they necessarily will. I think it is therefore better to use these insights as a jumping off point rather than conclusion. The next step to understand the connection between effort and norms would be to test these ads in real-world executions and see what actually converts most effectively.

The bigger picture

Broadening our view now, I was drawn to this research because effort is so important in the context of behaviour change. More particularly, for behaviour to happen, the reward for change must exceed the effort involved.

In the case of the research we’ve just explored, if I am asking someone to buy cosmetics that require effort, I need to ensure the way I am communicating the benefit resonates. Focussing on an internal state reward (“being yourself”) may be less effective than an external attribution (“first impressions”).

There’s a subtext too, about not being seen to try too hard. In the current climate of lifestyle curation where people post a predominance of happy, stress-less, ‘hashtagblessed’ images of their lives, the theme of life being effort-less is being perpetuated. Sweating while you exercise is okay (it’s high-effort but an enduring result) but sweating the small stuff is not.

Where does that leave us? Whether it’s customers, stakeholders or yourself, to influence behaviour:

  • Reduce fruitless effort. Effort that interferes with their goal reduces the odds they will bother. Look no further than Amazon’s 1-Click shopping for an example of removing friction from a process;
  • Include intentional effort. Effort is not all bad. In some contexts they will seek and pay for additional friction because it helps moderate their behaviour (e.g. single serve snacks to reduce consumption). Effort also means they have ‘skin in the game’ and will take more ownership of the transaction (e.g. people who buy tickets are more likely to attend than freebies);
  • Contextualise the reward. It is up to you to represent the payoff for changing their behaviour in a way that maximises its impact. Should you use norms? How can you help them justify the change to themselves and to others? and
  • Scale the reward. To overcome inertia, the rewards for change have to be at least double the effort expended. That means you need to pay attention to the magnitude of difference between reward and effort. The more effortful the change, the greater the payoff required.

NOW READ: Why fees can beat discounts when influencing customer behaviour


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