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100 Things You Should Know About People: #75 — The More Difficult Something Is To Attain, The More People Like It



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Photo by T. Voekler

You’ve heard about fraternities that have difficult initiation rituals to get in. The idea is that if an organization is hard to get into, then the people in it like it even more than if entry was not so difficult.

More difficult = more like — The first research on this initiation effect was done by Elliott Aronson at Stanford University in 1959. Aronson set up three initiation scenarios (severe, medium and mild, although the severe was not really that severe) and randomly assigned people to the conditions. He did indeed find that the more difficult the initiation, the more people liked the group.

Cognitive dissonance theory — Leon Festinger was the social psychologist who developed the idea of cognitive dissonance theory, and Aronson uses the theory to explain why people like groups that they had to endure hardship to join. People go through this painful experience only to find themselves part of a group that is not all that exciting or interesting. But that sets up a conflict (dissonance) in their thought process – if it’s boring and uninteresting, why did I submit myself to pain and hardship? In order to reduce the dissonance then, you therefore decide that the group is really important and worthwhile. Then it makes sense that you were willing to go through all of that pain.

Scarcity and exclusivity — In addition to the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain this phenomenon, I also think scarcity comes into play. If it’s difficult to join the group then not very many people can do it. I might not be able to make it in, then I would lose out. So if I went through a lot of pain it must be good.

What do you think? Do you find you like things better if they are difficult? Does this mean we should design products that are hard to use so that people will decide in the end it was worth it? (I hope not!)

And for those of you who like to read OLD research:

Aronson, Elliot, & Mills, J. (1959). The Effect of Severity of Initiation On Liking For A Group. U.S. Army Leadership Human Research Unit.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


9 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #75 — The More Difficult Something Is To Attain, The More People Like It”

  1. Lynda Avatar

    I think this relates to our sense of competition and reward. I find it difficult to believe that we would value a website more if we found it difficult to register or interact with content. However, if you look at bidding sites like eBay, there is a lot of intrinsic satisfaction in competing for a product, especially if it is cannot be easily bought elsewhere.

  2. Jeremy Avatar

    This is interesting!

    I’ve found this to be true for video games: Games that are simple and easy to beat are not very satisfying; but I like games that are difficult and take a lot of “work” to beat. (There is an extreme, of course; games that are too intense are easy to toss aside as not worth it.) I think a lot of the same “initiation” ideas apply here as well: There’s a special, “exclusive” feeling when you beat a very challenging game.

    And I’m not so sure games are the only product where this is true. For most applications and most users, easy of use makes the product much more appealing, but I think there are some contexts where highly technical users get some extra satisfaction out of a difficult-to-learn product. Once those users breach the high learning curve, they can feel a sense of accomplishment, and also feel like a part of something special; they know how to use something that few others do.

  3. Danny @ Firepole Marketing Avatar

    Yup – that’s why fraternity hazings persist, right? ;)

  4. Lynda Avatar

    Re gaming – yes, see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” theory, where the right level of arousal (challenge) creates a specific psychological state of heightened intrinsic enjoyment and immersion.

  5. Marc Cenedella Avatar

    I am really starting to fear the day you reach #100! I hope you’ll change it to 1,000 before then :)

    Relevant to this concept is this article “Why Strict Churches Are Strong”:

    Difficulty overcomes the free rider problem in human organizations and ensures that all members of the group have exhibiting costly signaling of their desire to be a part of the social group. The positive signaling here only extends to human social groupings or areas where the cost is correlated to the attractiveness of the payoff. A TV that is very difficult to turn on would not become more attractive to the user, for example.

  6. Abella Jucy Arthur Avatar

    Hi Susan!

    I’m really loving your blog… :-)

    “Do you find you like things better if they are difficult?”
    I don’t personally but I know of a lot of people who do. The harder and more hoops to jump, the more likely they are to appreciate what they get in the end. My experience is that people want to “work for it” and then because “the world is backwards” they would tell you that wasn’t the case at all. Because, who in their right mind, would want to work for something? Fact is, for a lot of people, working for something makes them appreciate it more!! :/

    “Does this mean we should design products that are hard to use so that people will decide in the end it was worth it? (I hope not!)”

    I don’t think so. People need to be able to “use” products easily or they will stop using it. However, what will get them all excited is how hard it was to “get” the product!! :D Like they spent a lot of money on it, waited a long time to get it, few others have it but they do, etc…


  7. Abella Jucy Arthur Avatar

    To further this comment:
    “I don’t personally but I know of a lot of people who do.”
    If I WANT the item, I won’t appreciate it more if I have to work for it. But if I’m NOT interested in it and I somehow get enticed to get interested in it, I notice that I will end up appreciating it more. :-)

    This reminds me of relationships: When you like someone, it can be best if you don’t put too much stock in them initially. If they like you, they will work to get you and when they get you, they are more likely to appreciate you. However, if you hand yourself on a silver platter at the get-go and they weren’t sure if their interest level was high enough yet, you may lose out on them. Easy to know and easy to forget…

    In order for people to respect something I want them to respect, it can’t be “easy” for them to get it. It’s the idea of not showing all your cards but suggesting there’s something you will like to see if you work for it. And working for it means you will appreciate that “thing” that ends up being shared or given.

    Which just reminded me of a recent situation that I didn’t get until I read your article. I run a niche group for astrologers on Facebook and I let someone in only to find out they didn’t have the qualifications to be in the group. She got very upset and mentioned words such as being “unworthy”. I couldn’t understand where that was coming from — it was *nothing* personal, she just didn’t have the qualifications. I think it’s the “exclusivity” of it that caused her to look down upon herself. :-( I did mention that if she ever got the qualifications we would definitely welcome her back into the group. Hopefully that will inspire her and if not, she doesn’t have a genuine interest in the group mandate.

    Oh humans and our brains!!

    Thanks again!!

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  9. Stephen Martin Avatar
    Stephen Martin

    I believe that talk here represents a psychological norm that has been induced by our culture. In reality, that is in the natural state, I believe the best things in life are free…easy.

    Somewhere along the line, someone said it has to be hard and everyone said,”Oh…okay.”

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