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Overjustification Effect – How Rewards Can Kill Your Motivation

Overjustification Effect – How Rewards Can Kill Your Motivation

The overjustification effect is a phenomenon where a reward or incentive reduces the motivation to perform a task.

Do rewards always motivate people to perform a task? At first thought, you’d think that’s true. After all, offering rewards is the most common method organizations use to encourage people to take action. For example, employees perform their best at work to earn a promotion or a higher income. Organizations facilitate such behavior by awarding the top performers a better bonus or other comparable rewards.

Incentives aren’t always about money. They come in various other forms like pride, fame, power, and recognition. For example, the dreams of an Olympic gold stimulates athletes to put in relentless hours of practice for years together. The joy of scoring the top rank drives students to prepare for their exams.

But can you generalize the concept and say rewards always inspire people to do better? Nope. In certain scenarios, a reward can create a negative effect.

overjustification effect

For example, imagine you’re walking on a street when you notice a blind man struggling to cross the road. Eager to help, you scurry towards the person, hold his hand, and guide him to the other side.

Now, what if the blind man opened his wallet and paid you 50 bucks for your effort? Would you feel motivated to help other disabled people cross the road? Absolutely not. You’d feel offended because you performed the act out of goodwill, without an expectation of a reward.

That’s what the overjustification effect is.

What is the overjustification effect?

The overjustification effect is a phenomenon where an external incentive, like a reward, payment, trophy, decreases your inner motivation to perform the task.

The incentive does not necessarily offend or affect you instantly as in the example of helping a blind man cross the road. More often, the reward acts like a slow poison that kills your motivation over time without your knowledge.

Related article: How cognitive biases effect your decision making skills

To understand how the overjustification effect works, let’s understand how extrinsic and intrinsic motivation works.

Here are two gentlemen, Charles and Matt.

Charles has finished his degree in computer science, but neither does he have passion nor hatred towards working in that domain. When Charles joins a job as an intern in a top organization, he realizes that the best performers will be offered full-time jobs with a fat paycheck. On further research, he finds out that if he strived hard, he could grow up the corporate ladder to a top position within the next 10 years. Motivated by what’s in store for him, Charles works hard to succeed in the organization.

extrinsic motivation

In Charles’ case, the rewards of a better income and a higher position drive him to perform well. Since the source of motivation is external, it is called extrinsic motivation.

On the other side, Matt finished college at the same time as Charles. Studies never were Matt’s area of interest, but he loved to play the violin. During his college days, he practiced long hours trying to learn various notes and melodies. Over time, he mastered the instrument and truly enjoyed playing it.

In Matt’s case, the desire to play the violin comes from within. Since the source of motivation is internal, it is called intrinsic motivation.

Rewards are powerful catalysts to stimulate extrinsic motivation. But for the intrinsic motivation, they can produce the reverse effect over time.

In Charles’s case, a better paycheck and a higher position would drive him to do better. But what happens when we associate a reward to Matt’s efforts? Let’s find out

Matt moves to a new city where he meets a wealthy neighbor who loves music. The rich man tells him, “I’ll pay you 1000 bucks for each hour that I ask you to play the violin.” Matt agrees without a moment of thought because that appears to be a golden opportunity. Not only does he get to do what he enjoys, but also makes a large sum of money out of it.

And so it goes on for a while. Mr. Wealthy is enjoying the sweet notes of music while Matt is making money playing the violin.

After a month, the neighbor moves out of the city bidding Matt goodbye. Now, all of a sudden, Matt has lost his reward. When he picks up the violin the next time, he feels no longer feels the natural love for the instrument. “Why doesn’t playing the violin doesn’t seem enjoyable anymore?,” he wonders.

intrinsic motivation

Over the month, the overjustification effect kicked in and killed his intrinsic motivation to perform the task.

Related article: Growth vs Fixed Mindset – Which one do you have?

What are the causes of the overjustification effect?

Human beings are not naturally adept at identifying what motivates our behavior and decisions. Neither do all the performers know why they strive hard nor do all non-performers why they procrastinate.

Therefore, when the overjustification effect influences your behavior, you may fail to recognize what’s going on.

Here are three theories cited as reasons why the effect changes your intrinsic motivation:

Focus on incentive:

scientist with reward

When you perform an activity because you enjoy the experience, you put in the effort for the pleasure that comes out of it. When a musician plays the guitar in a closed room, he is relishing the experience itself.

But once a reward comes into the picture, your mind starts focusing on the incentive instead of contentment. You start believing that you’re in for the reward than your internal satisfaction. Over time, such a thought process can turn into a norm where the reward turns into an expectation.

Now, what happens when the incentive is removed from the picture? Your brain cannot immediately shift back to your previous mindset because your motivation behind the activity has shifted from intrinsic to extrinsic. You miss the reward and tend to lose the motivation to perform the activity anymore.

Related article: 12 tips to motivate yourself

Time spent against your choice:

overworking programmer

When the activity you love doing has an associated reward, you’re compelled to work on it even when you’re not interested. The incentive serves as a bribe to perform the task even when you don’t want to.

A common example is when an employee begins working in a domain that he/she loves. At first, the salary appears to be an icing on the cake for working on your passion. But, to earn your paycheck you have to show up at your job every day. A person who loves programming may not feel like working one day, but stringent deadlines or a ruthless boss might force him to.

As a result, your love for the task turns into a monotonous routine compelling you to work whether you enjoy it or not. Over time, your passion turns into stress and kills your intrinsic motivation.

Failing to identify reasons:

Intrinsic motivation is self-generated and self-evaluated. No one decides if you enjoy running but yourself. Besides, even if two people love running a marathon, their reasons for contentment might vary. One might enjoy the challenge of completing the distance while the other feels satisfied with the weight loss.

But, the moment an external reward enters the picture, you tend to look forward to that incentive alone and ignore the other reasons that make you happy.

Examples in real life:

Here are examples from real life where the overjustification effect can lead to negative consequences.

1. Education system:

teacher student

Observe how children behave at a young age. You’ll find them shooting questions at every scenario asking “why.” That’s because, at an early age, children are inquisitive to understand more about the world around them. Younger kids can also take any object and turn it into a toy. They use their imagination to entertain themselves.

But things change as soon as they begin growing up. The education system forces them to conform to standards and aim for better grades. Their thirst for knowing more now has an associated reward – scoring the top score in the exams. In addition, the grades are determined by a set of subjects along with a clear structure.

Though education is necessary, the grades and the other formalities of the system divert the intrinsic motivation of children.

2. Jobs and salary:

higher salary

When students fresh out of college look for their first job, the salary serves as the determining factor. Given a choice between two roles, one which pays higher than the other, the natural tendency is to pick the one with a better pay scale.

At first, the additional income feels amazing because one can buy things that he/she previously couldn’t afford. But, in the long run, the motivation of salary starts diluting making the job stressful.

3. Payments for volunteering/hobbies:

Payments for engaging in volunteering can kill your enthusiasm to participate in them regularly. For example, if you enroll in a program where you teach poor kids over the weekend, you’re more inclined to persist in the long run if you provided your services for free than for payment. That’s because your purpose behind volunteering is the joy of contributing for the better good. The moment money plays a part, it kills your motivation.

The same goes with hobbies, for example, painting, guitar, stand up comedy, and any other art form. Money can turn them into a chore. A logical explanation is that payment will compel you to perform the task even when you don’t want to. Let’s say you partied all night and woke up with a bad hangover. No matter how much you love playing the piano, you’d hate performing the gig that day even if it involved a payment.

Experiments and research:

Researchers have performed various experiments to understand the impact of the overjustification effect on human psychology. Here are two significant ones:

The Deci experiment:

Edward Deci conducted an experiment in 1971 to measure how rewards can dilute the interest to perform a task. The research involved participants who had an average interest(neither too high nor too low) in solving puzzles. The participants were divided into two groups and were asked to solve puzzles for a short duration on 3 consecutive days. The first group was not paid for any of the days. The second group, however, was not paid on the first day, paid on the second day, and not paid on the third day.

The puzzle-solving sessions had breaks in between and researchers kept a close eye on how participants spent their free time. Their observations showed that, on the second day, people who were paid spent more time during their breaks solving puzzles. But on the third day, when the reward was removed, they spent significantly less time. The unpaid people showed no anomaly in behavior throughout the three days.

Blood donation camps:

blood donation

Richard Titmus performed an experiment to measure how a payment can affect blood donation initiatives. Participants were divided into three groups with different reward systems:

  • The first group was not paid
  • The second group received a small payment
  • The third group had an option of choosing between a small payment or passing the same amount to charity

Results showed that all 3 payment modes produced no effect on male donors. But, women behaved differently. When a payment was involved, the number of female donors reduced by about 50%. But, the third option of allowing the money to go to charity nullified the overjustification effect among women.

How to avoid the overjustification effect?

As a leader:

If you’re a leader or a manager leading a group of people, build an efficient reward system by balancing motivation and incentives. Bring in rewards for tasks that people do not have the natural inclination to pick up.

Avoid introducing planned awards for tasks that are already performed effectively. Instead, for tasks running well, introduce an element of surprise, and reward people for a job well done using on-spot awards. The surprise factor can motivate team members to do better whereas an organized reward structure can turn into a routine where people perform the task well only for the incentive and lose their natural inclination towards it.

Related article: How to reward your team members the right way

As an individual:

Avoid incentives and payments for tasks that you naturally enjoy. That said, you won’t succeed in staying away from rewards altogether. To pursue your career in your field of interest, you’ll receive a payment in one form or the other.

You can use a self-reward system to motivate yourself to pick up tasks you don’t like.

  • If you’re a student and hate math, treat yourself to ice cream for completing 2 chapters
  • If you’re an entrepreneur who hates accounts, allow yourself an extra day off after completing a sizable accounting job
  • As an employee, if there is a task you hate but completing it helps your growth, allow yourself to shop for an item you like for finishing it

Related article: How to build an effective self reward system

Use incentives for doing an activity well:

Whether you’re providing incentives to your team members or building a reward system for yourself, target performing an activity well instead of simply doing it.

  • If you’re a student, reward yourself for recalling material that you studied(not for studying 4 hours)
  • If you’re an employee, reward yourself for the results delivered(not for working for 14 hours a day this week)

When you build a reward system that is result-driven, you’ll improve your skills and facilitate career growth.


Rewards and incentives don’t always lead to better performance and improved motivation. Introducing them without understanding how they affect human behavior can degrade existing morale and lead to unintended consequences. So, don’t introduce a reward system without thinking it through. You might have all the good intentions of recognizing the best performers, but the incentive can inadvertently deteriorate the morale of people.

Use the rewards right and they will reward you the right way.

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