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  • Writer's pictureMarie Brand

Re-gaining Control: the Power of the ‘No Pain No Gain’ Principle

Written by Marie Brand, PhD Candidate at WU Vienna

Imagine that you and a friend are looking for protective masks at the height of the pandemic. You look at a display of different masks, and your friend instinctively chooses the most expensive mask. When you ask why they went for that one, your friend explains that the expensive mask offers the best protection.

This situation happened to Yanli Jia when she was in the process of publishing her paper "The effect of control deprivation on consumers’ adoption of no-pain, no-gain principle," a joint project with Robert S. Wyer Jr., (2022, vol 39(3), pp.678-698) and is a great example as to what this paper is about. Their research sheds light on how people seek to regain control when they feel deprived of it, a common experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The inspiration came from my mom. She raised me to believe in the “no pain,no gain"principle –that is, if you want something, you have to work really hard to get it. There are also many Chinese proverbs that exemplify this principle, for example:“the effective medicine tastes nasty” or “negatives comments are more helpful than positive ones.” – Yanli Jia

“No Pain no gain” to regain control

The first theoretical aspect of the paper is the "no gain, no pain" principle. It is dominant in the Chinese culture in whichYanli was raised, but also appears to be quite widespread in most countries. For example, the Protestant work ethic in the US highlights the more significant payoff from hard work. The popularity of Jane Fonda’s exercise videos, which popularized “no pain, no gain” as a slogan among fitness enthusiasts highlights a similar endorsement of the same idea.

The second theoretical aspect of the paper, feeling a loss of control, is a common experience, not only during major events like the pandemic but also in mundane situations like waiting for medical test results or job interview outcomes. In marketing contexts, feeling a loss of control is often associated with uncertainty. We do not know the quality of the food in a restaurant before we taste it, nor the quality of a concert we are about to watch. In China, there are vending machines that offer different flavored beverages that all cost the same. However, the machine chooses the flavor at random, not the customer, so consumers do not know which flavor they will get until after they pay.

“We submitted the paper during the COVID-19 pandemic, a context in which it is very common for people to feel a lack of control in a lot of domains –we did not know when the pandemic was going to end or if and how we will be affected by it.” – Yanli Jia

Feelings of control deprivation lead people to seek ways to re-establish control of the situation. One of the ways to do it is using the “no pain, no gain” principle. “No pain, no gain" depicts an orderly world, where behavior has clear and predictable consequences. By endorsing this principle, people can cognitively re-establish their own feelings of control. According to Yanli Jia, other principles such as belief in scientific findings, superstitions, and astrology also depict an orderly world and can help cope with control deprivation.

When in control, a spoonful of honey seems more potent than a bitter pill

The paper examines how deprivation of control leads to the endorsement of the "no pain, no gain" principle in a variety of situations. Take, for instance, asking individuals to remember an experience where they felt diminished control over the events in their lives while letting them taste cough syrup. They tend to perceive a cough syrup with a pleasant taste as considerably less effective in comparison to those who recalled feeling a strong sense of control over their lives. This discrepancy can be attributed to the heightened need for structure arising from this lack of control, which, in turn, reinforces the “no pain, no gain” principle. One way to counteract this effect is to give people the option to accept the loss of control. Accepting constraints leads to more productive coping mechanisms by endorsing the "no pain no gain" principle only in the domain related to the loss of control. For example, after receiving negative feedback on a math exam, if people are encouraged to accept their limitations, they will seek ways to improve in that domain rather than using less effective symbolic coping strategies.

Publishing a paper: No pain, no gain

The publishing process, Yanli describes, was itself a demonstration of the "no pain, no gain" principle. One of the most challenging aspects of the review process was the incorporation of managerially relevant implications. For people who study topics of general interest in cognitive and social psychology, finding the right managerial context is often a challenging task on the way to publication.

“Thanks to the review team, who pushed us to strengthen and complete our conceptualization under different angles –distinguishing our paper from previous work by showing the generalizability of the effect across unrelated domains and answering the question on the managerial implications of our work” – Yanli Jia

Read the paper

Interested in reading all the details about control deprivation and the no-pain, no gain-principle? Read the full paper here.

Want to cite the paper?

Jia, Yanli and Wyer Jr, Robert. S. (2022), “The effect of control deprivation on consumers’ adoption of no-pain, no-gain principle”, International Journal of Research in Marketing, 39(3), 678-698.


Meet Yanli Jia

Associate Professor at Xiamen University, China

What drives you to do the research / work that you do?

Finding common ground between and combining topics of marketing and social psychology.

If you were not in academia, what would you be?

Probably a teacher in a different field – I have always loved explaining mechanisms in a clear and concise way and sharing personal experiences.


This article was written by

Marie Brand

Ph.D. candidate at the WU, Vienna

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