How the Overjustification Effect Reduces Motivation

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The overjustification effect is a phenomenon in which being rewarded for doing something actually diminishes intrinsic motivation to perform that action. Think about a few of the things that you love to do.

Is there a sport such as volleyball or basketball that you love to play? Are you passionate about knitting, reading, or collecting movie memorabilia? Normally, you engage in these activities simply for the sheer joy and pleasure of it, not for some type of outside reinforcement.

The activity itself serves as its own reward. Would it surprise you to learn that when you are rewarded for things that you already enjoy doing, your desire to participate in those activities is sometimes lessened?

Edward Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, first demonstrated the overjustification effect with a series of experiments in the 1970s.

When Does the Overjustification Effect Occur?

The overjustification effect can have a serious impact on your motivations and behaviors. Let's explore what this effect is and how it can influence behavior.

The overjustification effect occurs when an external incentive decreases a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a behavior or participate in an activity.

Researchers have found that when extrinsic motivation (such as money and prizes) are given for actions that people already find intrinsically rewarding, they will become less internally motivated to pursue those activities in the future.

Edward Deci demonstrated the overjustification effect in one study, in which he compared the motivation of two groups of participants: one group was paid to complete a puzzle, and the other wasn't paid to complete it.

After removing the extrinsic motivation (money), the group that was previously paid to play experienced less motivation to complete the task compared to the group that was never paid and did the puzzle only for enjoyment.

Another well-known study conducted by Mark Lepper observed the overjustification effect in children. Children were prompted to draw pictures with magic markers—some chose among various "rewards" they would receive for coloring, such as receiving a "good player" award. The award, in this experiment, acted as the extrinsic motivation

Those who had agreed to receive the award for their drawings displayed significantly less interest and put less effort into their drawings than those who weren't contracted to receive any reward and were drawing for the fun of it.

Causes

Why does the overjustification effect occur? According to one theory, people tend to pay more attention to these external rewards rather than their own enjoyment of the activity. As a result, people think that their participation in the activity is the result of the external rewards rather than their own internal appreciation of the behavior.

Another possible explanation is that people sometimes view external reinforcement as a coercive force. Since people feel like they are being "bribed" into performing the behavior, they assume that they are doing it only for this external reinforcement.

According to the self-determination theory, there are three conditions needed in order to feel intrinsically motivated:

  • Autonomy: Freedom of external constraints
  • Competence: The need to feel capable
  • Relatedness: The need to feel involved with others

The three components above are needed in order for people to feel intrinsically motivated and perform at their best.

According to Deci, the cognitive evaluation theory (CET) explains why participants in his experiments became less motivated after they were offered money for their completion of the puzzle. CET posits that extrinsic motivation—in Deci's experiment, money—decreases a person's autonomy, one of the necessary components of intrinsic motivation.

In Deci's experiment, the money prevented the participants who received it from experiencing the "freedom of external constraints," (also known as autonomy in the self-determination theory). The constraint, in this case, was the money and the pressure to perform, as opposed to the freedom felt by those who were doing the puzzle only for pleasure.

Observations

Research has found that if extrinsic reinforcement is dependent upon doing something well, then the behavior is less influenced by the overjustification effect. Being rewarded for studying, for example, probably will not diminish any intrinsic motivation you may have to study.

This is because your grade is a performance-contingent reinforcer. They reinforce your studying behavior, but they are dependent upon actually doing well rather than simply going through the motions.

Research published in 2018 suggests that using verbal praise as a reward also warrants some caution.

Children who are praised for their effort ("You worked really hard on that assignment!") rather than their abilities ("You are so smart!") tend to believe that success hinges on effort rather than innate talent. Children who develop this type of mindset are also more likely to persist in the face of obstacles.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are examples of the overjustification effect in real life?

    Someone who once enjoyed writing is now less passionate about it after getting a paid job as a journalist. Or, someone who enjoys trivia night with their friends doesn't like trivia night now that their friends are placing bets on which team will win.

  • What are the negative consequences of the overjustification effect?

    A person might abandon an activity that they really enjoyed after they start receiving money or another type of reward for it. The extrinsic motivation (such as getting paid to do something) may cause us to forget our original motivation and feel less interested in doing something.

  • How do you reverse the overjustification effect?

    While we may not be able to completely reverse the overjustification effect, we may be able to selectively apply it. For instance, we might try to receive rewards or extrinsic motivation for activities that are more mundane (that we don't enjoy doing in the first place). We can also remember to keep some activities as hobbies, and do it simply for the enjoyment and not for the reward.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Deci, E. Effects of externally mediated rewards of intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1971;18(1):105-115.

  2. Levy A, DeLeon IG, Martinez CK, et al. A quantitative review of overjustification effects in persons with intellectual and developmental disabilitiesJ Appl Behav Anal. 2017;50(2):206‐221. doi:10.1002/jaba.359

  3. Stanford University. Mark Lepper: Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and the process of learning.

  4. American Psychological Association. The science of motivation.

  5. Hoff EV, Carlsson IM, Smith GJW. Personality. Handbook of Organizational Creativity. 2012:241-270. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-374714-3.00011-2

  6. Riley G. The role of self-determination theory and cognitive evaluation theory in home education. English RM, ed. Cogent Education. 2016;3(1):1163651. doi:10.1080/2331186x.2016.1163651

  7. Cerasoli CP, Nicklin JM, Ford MT. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: a 40-year meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2014;140(4):980-1008. DOI:10.1037/a0035661

  8. Gunderson EA, Sorhagen NS, Gripshover SJ, Dweck CS, Goldin-meadow S, Levine SC. Parent praise to toddlers predicts fourth grade academic achievement via children's incremental mindsets. Dev Psychol. 2018;54(3):397-409. DOI: 10.1037/dev0000444

Additional Reading
  • Breckler, SJ, Olson, JM, Wiggins, EC. Social Psychology Alive. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth; 2006.

  • Griggs, RA. Psychology: A concise introduction. New York, NY: Worth Publishers; 2010.