Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Overjustification effect

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The overjustification effect:
What is the overjustification effect and what can be done about it?


Have you ever contently performed a job or hobby on its own merit, then been rewarded with a material gain and suddenly lost interest in the activity without the reward being presented? Perhaps you have rewarded the good behaviour of your child and suddenly once you stop offering the reward the desired behaviour also halts? If so, you have experienced the Overjustification Effect, the focus of this chapter.

This chapter describes the Overjustification Effect, the different theoretical approaches to explaining the Overjustification Effect, the impacts of the effect and applications to address the Overjustification Effect.

What is the overjustification effect?[edit]

The Overjustification Effect is a motivational phenomenon where the introduction of extrinsic motivation can have a detrimental effect on an individual's original intrinsic motivation to complete a task that they were originally motivated to do, that is, when an extrinsic reward follows a normally intrinsic behaviour, it undermines the intrinsic motivation of the individual.

As defined by Ryan and Deci (2000):

Intrinsic Motivation - A form of motivation that occurs if we are completing a behaviour because it is interesting/enjoyable.

Extrinsic Motivation - A form of motivation that occurs if we complete behaviour for the purposes of achieving a particular outcome. This includes behaviours like avoiding punishment, trying to acquire rewards, avoid social conflict and etc.

This effect has been found in a wide variety of samples, for example in an experiment conducted by Anghelcev (2012) on attempting to incentivise university students to advertise a particular product, they found that those who were offered extrinsic rewards displayed the effects of the Overjustification Effect. To reiterate, those who received extrinsic motivators (rewards) had a significant decrease in the intrinsic motivation that was originally present.

The effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation is a topic that has been researched in great detail and has been consistently found to show that in particular contexts it can undermine interest and performance in previously intrinsically motivated behaviour (Condry, 1977; Tang & Hall, 1995). However, the practical problem of the overjustification effect is that, despite the array of supporting evidence, extrinsic rewards and incentives are still being implemented to reinforce intrinsic motivations. An example of this can be found in schools and workplaces where performance awards are regularly scheduled. This is supported in a study conducted by Kohn (1993) where it was identified that rewards quite consistently work towards only temporary compliance and over the long term reduces intrinsic motivation.

Case Study

David works in an office on a full-time basis and is very passionate about the paperclip company he works for, he has been there for almost 10 years and enjoys selling as many paperclips as possible each month.  New management has recently arrived at Paperclips Incorporated and has introduced a new incentive scheme to encourage their staff to sell more paperclips.  Whomever sells the most paperclips in a month receives a big cash bonus, while whomever sells the second highest number of paperclips receives a moderate cash bonus and the third highest seller receives a small cash bonus.  The incentive scheme works quite well, sales mildly increase and even David succeeds at receiving a bonus a couple of times over a one year period.  However, due to the financial restrictions, the company is unable to continue the new incentive scheme and bonuses are no longer offered to staff.  After the retraction of the financial compensation, David doesn’t feel very motivated to sell paperclips and his enjoyment from the task also appears to have faded, his performance continues to drop and he begins to look for alternative work.  David has been victim of the Overjustification Effect and has his intrinsically motivated behaviour has been negatively affected by the introduction of an extrinsic reward.

The impact of the Overjustification Effect[edit]

Despite the strong theoretical evidence base behind the Overjustification Effect and the understanding around the negative effect extrinsic motivation can have on an intrinsically motivated behaviour, there is still a strong public inclination to view extrinsic motivation as a positive influence on intrinsic motivation (Murayama, Kitagami, Tanaka, & Raw, 2016).

The Overjustification Effect directly undermines the autonomy of an individual and consequently is associated with work stress (Niece et al., 2015), worse job performance and consequently lower self-esteem. This can lead to longer term health impacts. It is important that we aim to understand why the Overjustification Effect occurs and how we can address it.

Figure 1. Financial compensation is one of the most common forms of external motivation.

Understanding the overjustification effect[edit]

The first study to term the Overjustification Effect was in an experiment by Deci (1971), in which the effects of external rewards on an individual's intrinsic motivation to complete a task were reviewed. The result of this study found that the introduction of monetary reward and its subsequent removal led to a reduction in an individual's intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1971, pp. 105). By understanding how external rewards influence intrinsic motivation, we can evaluate better develop intervention approaches to increase intrinsic motivation and reduce the Overjustification Effect. There are a range of different theories that help to explain why this effect occurs, the focus for this chapter will look at:

  1. Self-determination theory,
  2. Attribution theory, and
  3. Self-perception theory.

Self-determination theory[edit]

Self-determination theory continues on from Cognitive Evaluation Theory, which proposed that the need for autonomy and competence underlie all intrinsic motivation (Fang et al., 2013). Self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000) concludes that with the introduction of extrinsic reward there is a reduction in one's perceived sense of autonomy and consequently, there is a reduction in intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The reason this occurs is that when a reward accompanies a behaviour, an individual tends to attribute the reward as the reason the behaviour occurred opposed to the behaviour being intrinsically motivated (Hewett & Conway, 2016).

Autonomy is the factor considered to be primarily responsible for the decrease in intrinsic motivation and thus, the key to limiting the prevalence of the Overjustification Effect is to support an individual in having an internal locus of control for the behaviour (Gagne & Deci, 2005). However, as reported by Deci (1971) there are instances where verbal and positive reinforcement, which are defined as extrinsic motivators, can support intrinsic motivation. It is when extrinsic rewards are material that they appear to be the linked to the Overjustification Effect, and whether the perceived locus of control was internal and they believed they had autonomy for conducting the behaviour.

Attribution theory[edit]

Attribution theory is centred around the theory that the motivation behind a behaviour is dependent on how the individual perceives the behaviour post occurrence (Weiner, 1972). If the individual attributes the behaviour to their own motives it will encourage intrinsic motivation. However, if the behaviour is attributed to the motives of others, it will be considered extrinsic motivation and this will weaken previously present intrinsic motivations.

Attribution theory suggests that the overjustification effect occurs because people make retrospective attributions on their behaviour based on the social context in which it occurred (Jovanovic & Matejevic, 2014).  Therefore when a reward is present when the behaviour occurs, people attribute their behaviour to the reward opposed to their own intrinsic motivation. In summary, how the behaviour occurs and how the individual interprets the behaviour influences whether the intrinsic motivation is diminished once the extrinsic motivation is removed.

Self-perception theory[edit]

The self-perception theory suggests that we infer our self-concept and attitudes based on our actions/behaviour, therefore if we do not perceive ourselves as responsible for our own behaviour we infer that we do not wish to conduct the behaviour. In a study in 1973 (Leeper, Greenee, & Nisbett) looked at explaining the Overjustification Effect through self-perception theory, that people perceive their behaviours and attribute the causes to observable influences.  If no influences are observed then the behaviour can be attributed to intrinsic motivation, however, if the behaviour has an observable external influence, then the behaviour is attributed to external factor and not the individual’s own intrinsic motivation.  The results of this experiment supported the conclusion that children who received extrinsic rewards proceeding the behaviour were less likely to spend more time on the behaviour if no reward was provided.

Theoretical Considerations[edit]

The theoretical understanding of how the Overjustification Effect occurs is a topic under much debate, with many disagreements as to why it occurs. Consequently, the most supported theories have been outlined above and a summary of how these apply to the Case Study are outlined below:

Case Study - Theories

In the case of David, the following theories help to explain why the Overjustification effect occurs:

Self-determination Theory -  The effect is explained by the influence the extrinsic reward has to David's sense of Autonomy. The presence of an extrinsic motivator (money) reduces David's sense of Autonomy, he no longer feels he has control of the behaviour and consequently he is no longer intrinsically motivated to complete the behaviour.

Attribution Theory - The effect is explained by the fact David attributes his behaviour (the sales made) to the cash bonuses he was offered, opposed to his own interest. Therefore his intrinsic motivation diminishes while his motivation to perform the behaviour becomes reliant on extrinsic rewards.

Self-perception Theory - The effect is explained by post behaviour evaluation conducted by David. When David thinks back to making the sales he perceives that there was a reward/incentive present and consequently the behaviour was due to the reward. If no reward/incentive had been present, the behaviour would have been associated as an intrinsically motivated behaviour.

Therefore, we can summarise that the Overjustification Effect primarily occurs due to the following reasons:

  1. Weakened sense of autonomy through the presence of tangible rewards and evaluations (Gagne & Deci, 2005)
  2. Self-perception and attribution of the behaviour (post occurrence) as being extrinsically motivated. In other words, how competent an individual feels they are personally responsible for their behaviour plays an important role, it is not the by-product of a different extrinsic factor.

Addressing the Overjustification Effect[edit]

The Overjustification Effect is a motivational phenomenon that is prominent in almost all aspects of society:

  • In schools, teachers often provide extrinsic rewards in the form of grades or awards to reward intrinsic motivation towards particular topics.
  • In professional settings, management strategies often include the offer of monetary encouragement or formal acknowledgement.
  • In child rearing, appropriate behaviours - such as completing chores or healthy eating - are often attemptable reinforced through treats or rewards.

This effect was first published in 1971 by Deci and has since been well documented and accepted by researchers, but despite the awareness of the detrimental phenomenon on motivation, extrinsic motivators are still regularly used to promote already intrinsically motivated behaviours. Murayama et al. (2016) propose that the reason the extrinsic rewards are still viewed as positive influencers on intrinsic motivation is due to an inaccurate belief system around how motivation works and consequently education is a positive consideration for applications.

Treating the Overjustification Effect[edit]

There are two options for addressing the Overjustification Effect, first by reducing the risk of the Overjustification Effect occurring and secondly by increasing an individual's intrinsic motivation after the effect has occurred.

Reducing the risk of the Overjustification Effect[edit]

The most obvious consideration for reducing the risk of the Overjustification Effect is to not offer extrinsic material rewards for behaviours that are already intrinsically motivated, this only undermines the behaviour. Also, by increasing awareness of and educating people on the Overjustification Effect, there will be a reduction in the likelihood of extrinsic material incentives being used to build off of already present intrinsic motivations (Murayama et al., 2016).

Increasing an individual's intrinsic motivation[edit]

As found by Murayama et al. (2016), the more an extrinsic reward is based on the level of achievement, the more negative an effect it will have on intrinsic motivation. Therefore it is important to not link competence of an individual to extrinsic rewards, otherwise this will have a detrimental effect.

Increase the level of autonomy for the individual has been found to increase worker satisfaction and performance (Downs, 2005). There are also some extrinsic rewards, such as verbal rewards that do not negatively affect the autonomy of an individual, which can assist with fostering autonomy (Hewett & Conway, 2016).

By incorporating some of the proposed interventions we can increase an individual's intrinsic motivation and reduce the likelihood of the Overjustification Effect occurring. Ideally the best intervention is minimise the likelihood of its occurrence in the first place through education and minimising extrinsic rewards based on performance.

By utilising these intervention strategies it will lead to stronger intrinsic motivation, which has been consistently linked to academic success over multiple studies, particularly for long-term achievement (Taylor et al., 2014) and self-esteem and wellbeing.

Criticisms of the Overjustification Effect[edit]

There are some criticisms around the Overjustification Effect. Perhaps the most notable is that the original research on the phenomenon (Deci, 1971) was limited in scale, with only 24 subjects participating.

Some meta-studies have found that there is little evidence to support the overjustification effect but rather the observed reaction to external reward is a short term factor and that there are range of other factors at play (Goswami & Urminsky, 2017, pp.1)[Provide more detail]. There are also limitations on current research around the overjustification effect, and as Peters and Vollmer (2014, pp. 202) highlighted, there have been mixed results due to the variety of methods used to measure intrinsic motivation.


The Overjustification Effect is a motivational phenomenon that we understand to have detrimental effects to an individual's intrinsic motivation when a proceeding extrinsic reward follows. While we understand the effects and relationships of the effect, there is still debate around why the effect occurs. The most evidence supported theories include: self-determination theory, attribution theory and self-perception theory. By utilising the key factors of these theories we are able to build a framework to help address the impact of the effect and to minimise its occurrence.

Revision questions[edit]


 Which of the following is an intrinsic motivation?

Completing homework out of concern for the punishment that will follow if incomplete.
Mowing a friend's lawn for monetary compensation.
Painting model trains out of personal joy and interest
Reporting early for work to avoid being isolated from the staff in the early shift.


Which of the following theories do not contribute to our understanding of the Overjustification Effect

Self-Perception Theory
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Attribution Theory
Self-Determination Theory


Which of the following interventions do not help to counter the Overjustification Effect

Verbal reinforcement
Increasing autonomy
Linking achievement to rewards

See also[edit]


Anghelcev, G. (2012). Unintended effects of incentivizing consumers to recommend a favorite brand. Journal of Marketing Communications, 21(3), 210-223.

Condry, J. (1977). Enemies of exploration: Self-initiated versus other-initiated learning. Journal of personality and social psychology, 35(7), 459-477.

Deci, E. L. (1971).  Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.  DOI: 10.1037/h0030644

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological inquiry, 11 (4), pp. 227-268. DOI: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01

Downs, M. (2005). Live as we choose: The role of autonomy support in facilitating intrinsic motivation. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 98(30, 441-447. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.08.009

Gagne, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 26(4), 331-362. DOI: 10.1002/job.322

Goswami, I., & Urminsky, O. (2017). The Dynamic Effect of Incentives on Postreward Task Engagement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146 (1), 1-19. DOI: 10.1037/xge0000206.

Hendijani, R., Bischak, D. P., Arvai, J., & Dugar, S. (2016). Intrinsic Motivation, external reward, and their effect on overall motivation and performance. Human Performance, 29(4), 251-274. DOI: 10.1080/08959285.2016.1157595

Hewett, R., & Conway, N. (2016). The undermining effect revisited: The salience of everyday verbal rewards and self-determined motivation. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 37(3), 436-455. DOI: 10.1002/job.2051

Jovanovic, D., & Matejevic, M. (2014). Relationship between rewards and intrinsic motivation for learning - Research review. Procedia - Social and Behavioural Sciences, 149, 456-460.

Kohn, A. (1993). Why incentive plans cannot work. Harvard Business Review, 71(5), 54-63.

Ledford, G. E., Gerhart, B., & Fang, M. (2013). Negative effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation: more smoke than fire. World at Work Journal, 877-951.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973).  Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the" overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 28(1), 129-137.

Murayama, K., Kitagami, S., Tanaka, A., Raw, J. A. L. (2016). People's Naiveté about how extrinsic rewards influence intrinsic motivation. Motivation Science, 2(3), 138-142. DOI: 10.1037/mot0000040

Nie, Y., Chua, B. L., Yeung, A. S., Ryan, R. M., & Chan, W. Y. (2015). The importance of autonomy support and the mediating role of work motivation for well-being: Testing self-determination theory in a Chinese work organisation. International journal of psychology, 50(4), 245-255. DOI: 10.1002/ijop.12110

Peters, K. P., & Vollmer, T. R. (2014). Evaluations of the overjustification effect. Journal of Behavioural Education, 23 (2), pp. 201-220. DOI: 10.1007/s10864-013-9193-1

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). The intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67. DOI: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Tang, S., & Hall, V. C. (1995). The overjustification effect: a meta-analysis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9(5), 365-404. DOI: 10.1002/acp.2350090502

Taylor, G., Jungert, T., Mageau, G. A., Schattke, K., Dedic, H., Rosenfield, S., & Koestner, R. (2014). A self-determination theory approach to predicting school achievement over time: the unique role of intrinsic motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychological, 39(4), 342-358.

Weiner, B. (1972). Attribution Theory, Achievement Motivation, and the Educational Process. Review of educational research, 42(2), 203-215. DOI: 10.3102/00346543042002203

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