PSYCH: Industriousness: How It Can Be Learned

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Tue Apr 24 2001 - 16:33:37 MDT

Industriousness: How It Can Be Learned

Robert Eisenberger, PhD University of Delaware

The Romantic tradition in Western civilization, as reflected in
the writings of humanistic psychologists, values the gentle
nurture of unique talent as a means to individual success. This
romantic view gives insufficient recognition to the difficult
work needed to become proficient in a field of endeavor
(Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). Biographical studies of the
lives of such remarkable scientists and mathematicians as
Einstein, Feynman, von Neumann, and Ramanujan reveal the
remarkable persistence required for creative achievement
(Clark, 1972; Gleick, 1992; Kanigel, 1991; Lanouette, 1992;
Macrae, 1992). Some individuals work harder than others who
have equivalent ability and motivation. One student
consistently studies more for various courses than another
student with similar life goals. A teacher carefully prepares
lessons whereas a colleague relies on old, incomplete notes. A
factory employee completes tasks rapidly and efficiently
whereas another dawdles. Learning may contribute importantly to
such individual differences in industriousness. Almost seven
decades ago, J. B. Watson (1930/1970) argued that "the
formation of early work habits in youth, of working longer
hours than others, of practicing more intensively than others,
is probably the most reasonable explanation we have today not
only for success in any line, but even for genius" (p.
212). If Watson exaggerated for emphasis, individual
differences of industriousness do have an important influence
on achievement. Recent research has shed light on mechanisms
that contribute to the learning of industriousness.

    Learned Industriousness Theory

Learned industriousness theory (Eisenberger, 1992)
asserts that rewarding a difficult task produces
classical conditioning involving the pairing of effort
(the conditioned stimulus) with a positive unconditioned
stimulus (the reward), thereby reducing effort's
aversiveness. When a difficult task is followed by
reward, the effort would become less aversive, increasing
the amount of effort the individual subsequently chooses
to spend performing this and other difficult tasks.
Physical effort involves "the subjective experience that
accompanies bodily movement when it meets resistance or
when muscles are fatigued" (English & English, 1968,
p. 171). Cognitive effort refers to the sensation
experienced when mental activity encounters impediments
such as mental fatigue or complex reading material. The
aversiveness of effort has an evolutionary benefit: a
species that continually chose the most difficult way to
obtain food or drink would be at a competitive
disadvantage. So all higher species seem to follow the
law of least effort, according to which laborsaving
changes in behavior for rewards are favored (Hull, 1943;
Solomon, 1948). Although organisms prefer to achieve
their goals with least effort, high effort is required
for achieving long-term goals. Learned industriousness
theory assumes that different kinds of physical and
cognitive tasks produce similar aversive subjective
experience. For example, the experience of cognitive
effort the reader expends on this article is similar, in
the present view, to that involved in writing a term
paper or figuring out what courses to take. If the
experience of effort is similar across different tasks,
then learning to tolerate high effort in one task may
increase toleration of high effort in subsequent tasks.

Basic Research Findings

Extensive research with animals and humans shows that,
consistent with learned industriousness theory, reward
for high effort contributes to durable individual
differences in effort expenditure (Eisenberger,
1992). Rats required to press a lever with high force for
food later made more trips in a runway for food than rats
receiving food for pressing a lever requiring low
force. Rats required to make five trips in a runway for
food, as opposed to one trip, subsequently showed a
greater preference for pressing a heavy lever for a large
food reward versus a light lever for a small food
reward. Depressed mental patients asked to carry out
several custodial tasks by a ward attendant were later
more persistent in a clerical task administered by
another invvidual than were comparable patients who had
received verbal approval for each custodial task. College
students rewarded for solving difficult cognitive
problems subsequently wrote better essays than did
students who had been rewarded for solving easy cognitive
problems. The effects of rewarded high effort also
extends to socially important behaviors, such as honesty
and creativity.


Reward of high effort could help sustain a person's
subsequent performance in difficult tasks when the
opportunity arises to achieve the desired result by
dishonest behavior. By concentrating on working for a
desired goal, rather than dwelling on the goal itself, a
person would be less inclined to resort to dishonest
shortcuts. An experiment with college students tested
whether rewarded high performance would increase the
subsequent resistance to cheating on a different task
(Eisenberger & Masterson, 1983). One group of students
was required to solve difficult mathematics problems and
perceptual identifications. A second group received
easier versions of these problems, and a third group was
given no training at all. Next, the students were asked
to work on a series of anagrams that were almost
impossible to solve in the short time allotted for each
word. The students were told that speaking aloud
interfered with the anagram task and that they should try
to solve the anagrams without speaking. When the time was
up for figuring out an anagram, they would be shown the
correct answer. They were simply to place a plus on the
answer sheet if they had figured out the answer they were
shown, and to put a zero if they had not achieved the
solution. Cheating seemed simple to the students because
they never had to supply an answer, simply to claim the
solution after it was shown to them. Most of the
students did cheat. However, the students who had
previously been required to solve difficult anagrams
cheated less than the others. Rewarded high performance
on preliminary tasks reduced the number of anagrams that
students falsely claimed to solve. These results suggest
that an individual's honesty is influenced by the
generalized effects of rewarded high effort.


An additional assumption of learned industriousness
theory is that people learn the dimensions of performance
(e.g., speed, accuracy, or novelty) required for reward
and generalize such learning to new tasks. For instance,
preadolescent students who were rewarded for reading with
high accuracy subsequently produced more accurate
drawings and stories than did those who had been rewarded
for reading with high speed or for the mere completion of
the reading task. In comparison, students who were
rewarded for high reading speed subsequently constructed
stories more quickly than did students who were rewarded
for high reading accuracy or the mere completion of the
reading task (Eisenberger, Mitchell, McDermitt, &
Masterson, 1984). Creativity involves the generation of
novel behavior that meets a standard of quality or
utility. Because daily experience rewards various types
of conventional performance more frequently than novel
responding, people promised reward for carrying out
tasks, without a clear indication that creativity is
required, may respond conventifinally rather than
creatively. Eisenberger, Armeli, and Pretz (1998) found
that the promise of pay for unspecified drawing
performance increased the creativity of the children's
drawings if the children had previously received pay for
generating novel uses for common objects. Preliminary
reward for creativity caused the children to interpret
the subsequent promise of reward for unspecified
performance as an indication that novelty was needed to
obtain the reward, causing the children to increase their
creativity. These results suggest that reward for
creative performance produces a generalized increase in


The individual's decision concerning how much effort to
exert in goal-directed behavior is influenced by the
generalized efforts of prior reward for low or high
effort. The occurrence of learned individual differences
in industriousness is shown by a variety of studies both
with lower animals and humans. Generalized effects of
rewarded high effort influence socially important
activities ranging from cheating to creativity. Learned
industriousness theory helps explain why some people work
harder than others of equivalent ability and motivation.


Clark, R. W. (1972). Einstein: The life and times. New York:
Avon Books.

Eisenberger, R. (1992). Learned industriousness. Psychological
Review, 99, 248-267.

Eisenberger, R., Armeli, S., & Pretz, J. (1998). Can the
promise of reward increase creativity? Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, 74, 704-714.

Eisenberger, R. & Cameron, J. (1996). Detrimental effects of
reward: Reality or myth? American Psychologist, 51, 1153-1166.

Eisenberger, R. & Masterson, F. A. (1983). Required high effort
increases subsequent persistence and reduces cheating. Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 593-599.

Eisenberger, R. Mitchell, M., McDermitt, M., & Masterson,
F. A. (1984). Accuracy versus speed in the generalized effort
of learning-disabled children. Journal of Experimental
Analysis of Behavior, 42, 19-36.

English, H. B., & English, A. C. (1968). A comprehensive
dictionary of psychological and psychoanalytical terms. New
York: David McKay.

Gleick, J. (1992). Genius: The life and science of Richard
Feynman. New York: Pantheon.

Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of behavior. New York:
Appleton-Century Crofts.

Kanigel, R. (1991). The man who knew infinity: A life of the
genius Ramanujan. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Lanouette, W. (1992). Genius in the shadows: A biography of Leo
Szilard. New York: Macmillan.

Macrae, N. (1992). John von Neumann. New York: Pantheon.

Solomon, R. I. (1948). The influence of work on
behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 45, 1-40.

Watson, J. B. (1970). Behaviorism. New York: Norton. (Original
work published 1930).

[This article was originally presented as a Psi Chi
Distinguished Lecture at the combined meeting of the Rocky
Mountain and Western Psychological Associations in Albuquerque,
NM, April 18, 1998.]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Eisenberger (born February 11, 1943,
in New York City) received his BA (1964) from the University of
California, Los Angeles and his PhD (1972) from the University
of California, Riverside and is a fellow of the American
Psychological Association. He taught at State University of New
York at Albany followed by the University of Delaware where he
is a professor of psychology. He served as director of the
social psychology graduate program from 1987 to 1989 and from
1995 to 1996. Professor Eisenberger's research centers on
human motivation. One of his major interests (discussed in the
accompanying article) involves the study of why some
individuals generally work harder than others. A related
research area concerns the study of enjoyment of activities for
their own sake (intrinsic motivation). His recent findings
suggest that (a) reward can be used effectively with children
and employees to increase perceived control over whether and
how tasks are carried out, perceived competence, task
enjoyment, and creativity, and (b) expectancies of reward are
positively related to employees' expression of interest in
daily job activities, this relationship being stronger among
persons with a high desire for control. Professor Eisenberger
also studies employee motivation. His research in a variety of
work organizations indicates that (a) employees form general
beliefs concerning how much the organization values their
contributions and cares about their well-being (perceived
organizational support), and (b) based on the norm of
reciprocity, employees reciprocate such support with increased
emotional commitment to the organization, work effort in
standard job activities, and innovative problem solving.

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