Overjustification Effect

What Is Overjustification Effect?

If you saw a boy who lives next door to you playing the piano as you walked by his house in the evening, would you think that he enjoys playing the piano? Why? What if you learned that his parents had told him that he could watch his favorite television show later in the evening if he played the piano for an hour? Would you then conclude that he enjoys playing the piano?

This scenario illustrates that when there is an external reason (e.g., to be able to watch a favorite television show) for a behavior, we tend to view the behavior as controlled by the external reason (i.e., the reward to watch a favorite television show) rather than see it as intrinsically appealing (i.e., something we just like to do), a phenomenon called overjustification effect.

Overjustification effect is an inference that we performed a potentially enjoyable activity for external reasons (e.g., for a reward) rather than because we enjoyed it.

According to the psychological effect of overjustification, being rewarded for activities we naturally enjoy doing actually diminishes intrinsic motivation Opens in new window to perform those activities in the future because they have become associated with rewards.

A painter might be intrinsically motivated Opens in new window to paint, for example, because he enjoys the process of dabbing colors onto a canvas and takes satisfaction in creating a beautiful or striking picture. Now, suppose that someone then began to pay him to paint. The painter would gradually see himself painting away and getting paid for it.

And the logical inference would be that he is painting for the money—which implies that he doesn’t really love to paint for its own sake. Accordingly, over time, being paid to paint would make the painter less and less intrinsically motivated to paint.

Essentially, overjustification means that rewards transform play into work. Mark Twain understood this concept long before psychologists did. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain wrote:

  • There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service that would turn it into work then they would resign.

Sometimes people perform activities because they must do so (e.g., schoolwork, job responsibilities). At other times, however, they engage in activities for intrinsic reasons—because they enjoy the activities or find them fulfilling in some way.

The overjustification effect occurs when people decide that they performed a potentially enjoyable task for external reasons rather than because they enjoyed it. A reward (or threat) provides sufficient justification for performing the task, so the individual infers that s/he did not really enjoy the task.

Classic Studies of the Overjustification Effect

The overjustification effect has been demonstrated in many studies that if people get extrinsic rewards for doing something they intrinsically like to do, eventually the intrinsic motivation grows weaker and the person orients the activity more and more to its extrinsic rewards.

In the first demonstrations of this pattern, Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Richard Nisbett (1973) conducted a well-known experiment in which students were asked to perform puzzles and were either paid or not paid for solving them (Deci, 1971). Lepper and colleagues then left each student alone for a brief period and secretly observed whether the student continued to work on the puzzles (a sign of intrinsic motivation, because it indicated that the person enjoyed the puzzles enough to work on them when there was no reward).

Students who had been paid showed a sharp drop in their interest in doing the puzzles once the pay stopped. In contrast, students who had done the same number of puzzles but had never been paid continued to find them interesting. Thus, being paid made people think, “I only do these for money,” and they no longer liked to do them for their own sake. Extrinsic motivation (money) had replaced intrinsic motivation (fun). Play had become work.

A crucial and revealing factor is whether the rewards are expected during the activity, as opposed to coming as a surprise afterward. You would only infer that somebody is painting for the sake of the money if the person knew in advance that painting would bring money. If the person painted and then received some money afterward, unexpectedly, you would not conclude that money was the driving force.

The same logic applies to the self Opens in new window. When people perform an activity and anticipate they will be paid for it, their intrinsic interest in the task diminishes. In contrast, an unexpected reward does not alter their intrinsic motivation (Lepper et al., 1973).

Parents who want education to be intrinsically motivating to their children should think twice about using rewards or other external incentives to encourage their children to engage in important activities such as reading or playing a musical instrument.

The goal of parents and educators should be to produce intrinsic motivation in their children and students, because liking for a task enhances persistence and improves performance (Deci & Flaste, 1995). If offering rewards to encourage the activity, or forcing the activity via some other external pressure, leads people to conclude that the activity is not enjoyable, then the rewards or pressure may be counterproductive in the long run (Lepper & Greene, 1978).

Are rewards or other incentives always a bad idea when the activity is one for which we want intrinsic motivation to develop?

No, not necessarily. It turns out that if the reward is given only when performance is good, then the reward may not have a negative effect.

Rewards given for good performance show recipients that they are skilled at an activity, which can actually increase personal motivation (Tang & Hall, 1995). Think about times that you have been given a reward or recognition because you did something extremely—it made you feel good about yourself and the activity, didn’t it?

On the other hand, if rewards are given simply because the activity was undertaken, the rewards will not show recipients that they performed well, but instead will be seen as “controlling,” which will serve to reduce perceived enjoyment (Deci & Flaste, 1995).

Parents should not say “Play the piano for one hour, and you can watch television” and then let the child plunk away randomly on the keys for an hour. Instead, parents should “If you can play all of your songs at least once without any mistakes, you can watch television” and then comment on the child’s good performance when the reward criterion is reached.

Thus, rewards are not necessarily bad, even when the activity for which they are given is enjoyable. Nevertheless, rewards should be used cautiously and given only for good performance. If there is no need of reward to encourage the activity in the first place (e.g., if a child is certain to read a colorful book without any pressure), then it is probably best to avoid rewards altogether.

There is also evidence that verbal praise (one form of reward) should be used carefully. When children are successful, it may be best to praise their effort (“You worked so hard!”) rather than their ability (*You’re so smart!”), because when children believe that success depends on effort, they are more likely to persist in the future if they fail (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). The goal of praise should be to produce feelings of competence and confidence that success is possible with good effort.