Oolong has recently written an excellent piece on humans' desire to make sacrifices without clear reference to evidence that these sacrifices do any good. After much discussion, it was determined that there was no existing label that framed this tendency as a cognitive bias1.
And so a term was coined. The Builds-Character Heuristic refers to the idea that if you work hard, make sacrifices, and show an effort, you are a better person. This is sometimes a stated belief, and sometimes simply an alief, but it is something that most of us tend to feel is correct.
If it tastes bad, it must be good for you. If you exercise more, you will be healthier. The best employee is the one that stays the latest. Walking to school in the snow builds character.
Chances are that you are familiar with all of these ideas, whether or not you live them. But... sometimes things that taste bad are bad for you, and sometimes things that taste good are good for you (e.g., nightshade vs. fruit). You can, and people do, exercise too much, and get hurt. The person who stays late might also be the one who is most chronically behind on their work. Walking to school in the snow lowers your visibility and increases the chance that you will be run over, dying a lingering, painful death.
So, yes, eat your brussel sprouts, work out regularly, finish your assignments, and go to school. But smart people do so by first figuring out how much of a bad thing is best, and then doing that amount. Having a general feeling that "I'm suffering, I must be a good person" is probably not healthy, and certainly not the best way to maximize your productivity and utility.
But this is a cognitive bias that I think we can do more than just describe; I think we can explain it fairly well.
Throughout your life, you will have to be told many times to eat your bitter vegetables, work a bit more, and stop complaining. You will rarely have to be told to eat your strawberries, take a break, and voice your discomforts more loudly. As soon as you are able to understand language, its primary use is to divert you from what you would like to do and tell you to do more pain and suffering.
It is not surprising that you might unconsciously -- or even consciously -- start to act as if those things that were unpleasant were more praiseworthy than pleasant tasks. After all, they certainly are praised more. It is apparent that we have an unfortunate tendency to accept without question that those things that people praise us for are more morally good than those that they do not praise us for.
And whether or not you believe this, it is clear that society does. No one advertises factory produced baked goods with modern sanitary protections and state-of-the-art freeze drying techniques; they advertise baked-from-scratch biscuits. Never mind that we have a reasonable expectation of greater variation in quality and higher prices. Hand-made, hand-crafted, and hand-brewed is better, because it's harder.2
And on the flip side, if there is the idea floating around that suffering is good, it is only natural that people would be drawn to it. After all, we all have all-to-direct experience of our own troubles, and if they are good for nothing else, at least they can be made productive by demonstrating how good we are.
1. However, it was noted that it is related to the just-world bias, the sunk cost fallacy, the philosophical and political positions of asceticism, the tentatively named Scylla Charybdis Heuristic, and the now defunct self-defeating personality disorder. Among other things.
2. Yes, sometimes your local bakery does bake better bread. And it may bake better break because the bread is baked from scratch. But the way to determine this is not from the baked-from-scratch label, but from a simple taste test.