The Overjustification Effect

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The Overjustification Effect

Following on the heels of Daryl Bem’s 1965 theory of self-perception, the overjustification effect states that how individuals will feel toward performing certain tasks is determined by whether they are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to perform the task (Deci, 1971). Using the self-perception theory’s prediction that when extrinsic motivations are present they will take precedent over intrinsic motivations, the overjustification effect reveals the importance of motivation on performance (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett).


Understanding Motivation

In understanding the overjustification effect, it is important to distinguish between the two types of motivation present: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to perform an activity out of the enjoyment derived from the activity itself. In performing an intrinsically motivated activity, an individual expects no external reward; the activity is a reward in itself. An example of an intrinsically motivated activity would be one that a person does as a hobby or in his or her free time.

Extrinsic motivation is the motivation to perform an activity because the activity leads to something else. The desire to perform an extrinsically motivated activity comes not from the activity itself, but from rewards or benefits associated with the activity. An example of an extrinsically motivated activity would be chores that are preformed for an allowance. The chores themselves are not pleasurable, but the cash that result from completing them is.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motives can be present in an activity. In such a case, the salience of extrinsic motivation over intrinsic motivation is the basis for the overjustification effect.


Origins of the Overjustification Effect

In 1971, Deci suggested that in a situation where an individual was to receive a reward for an activity, and knew about the reward prior to participating in said activity, then the individual would attribute his or her behavior to the reward instead of the activity itself. Deci’s theory led to the hypothesis that once an activity is associated with the external reward, a person will be less inclined to participate in the activity in the future without a reward present.

Deci (1971) conducted a study in which students were either asked to solve puzzles for money or no money. After the payment stopped, the researchers noted if the students continued to work on the puzzles. Those that had received money (an extrinsic motivation for solving the puzzles) did in fact become less inclined to work on the puzzles once they were no longer paid to do so. The students who had not been paid (they only had intrinsic motivation) continued to show an interest in the puzzles.


Confirming the Overjustification Hypothesis

Two years after Deci’s study, a group of researchers tested the overjustification hypothesis in a field experiment. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) went to a nursery school and observed children’s intrinsic interest in various activities. The children were then put into one of three conditions for the experiment.

• In the first condition, known as the “expected-award condition,” children were told they would receive a reward (a certificate with a seal and a ribbon) for partaking in the activity that they were previously doing out of pure intrinsic interest.

• In the second condition, the “unexpected-award condition,” the children were not told of the reward until after they finished the activity.

• In the third condition, also called the “no-reward condition,” the researchers did not tell or give the children any reward. This group thus served as the control group, since extrinsic rewards were not involved either before or after performance.

The extrinsic reward phase ended with the researchers giving the children the certificates based on their condition group. In the following phase, the researchers let the children go about their activities, but this time without offering or giving any rewards. In accordance with the overjustification hypothesis, the children in the “expected-reward condition” had become less interested in their activities since the introduction of the extrinsic motivation. However, there was no change in the interest of the group who received the reward unexpectedly. This is because the children in this condition did not know about the reward until after the activity, and therefore attributed their behavior to an enjoyment of the activity. Similarly, those who did not expect or receive a reward had no extrinsic motivation, and showed no decline in interest as a result.


Controversies over the Overjustification Effect

The overjustification effect is wholly disquieting to behavioral psychologists, whose theories conflict with overjustification. These so-called behaviorists began doing their own studies to disprove the overjustification effect.

A reply to this critique was fast in coming by motivationalists (those who support self-perception and overjustification). Deci, along with Cascio and Krusell (1975), acknowledged Calder and Staw’s doubts as to whether non-contingent monetary rewards would result in the overjustification effect. However, they did not say the overjustification effect was incorrect in this area; merely that other studies needed to be done.

In 1983, R. M. Ryan, V. Mims, and Koestner placed their support behind the overjustification effect. They addressed Calder and Staw’s argument that non-contingent rewards discredit the overjustification effect by countering that non-contingent rewards are not tied to the activity in question. Thus, they run little risk of undermining intrinsic motivation.


Meta-analyses and the Conclusion to the Controversies

With so many studies into the overjustification effect, meta-analyses of these studies were eventually done. In one significant meta-analysis in 1995, psychologists Tang and Hall sufficiently concluded that physical rewards which were made contingent upon completing an activity, did in fact undermine intrinsic interest in the activity.

Twenty-five years after Calder and Staw (1974) published their firsts doubts, another meta-analysis was performed in 1999 that confirmed that extrinsic motivation has a negative impact on intrinsic motivation. This meta-analysis is the work of Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999). It examined 128 carefully conducted experiments and found that tangible rewards do, indeed, greatly weaken intrinsic motivation.


Relevance for Everyday Life

The overjustification effect, as stated in Deci, Koestner, and Ryan’s meta-analysis, has significant consequences for many people. When control is placed on individuals by offering them incentives, the long term effect will be a loss in intrinsic motivation, accompanied by negative performance. This applies to classrooms, sports teams, as well as other environments. Should a reward be present, there is a risk of losing the enjoyment of the activity for itself.


Works Cited

Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 74, 183–200.

Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129–137.

Lepper, M. R. & Greene, D. (1974). Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Children's Subsequent Intrinsic Interest. Child Development, 45, 1141-1145

Deci, E. L., Cascio, W. F., & Krusell, J. (1975). Cognitive evaluation theory and some comments on the Calder and Staw critique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 81-85.

Ryan, R. M., Mims, V., & Koestner, R. (1983). Relation of reward contingency and interpersonal context to intrinsic motivation: A review and test using cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 736-750.

Tang, S-H., & Hall, V. C. (1995). The overjustification effect: A meta-analysis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, 365-404.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.



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