Overjustification Effect: What It Is And What Does It Show About Motivation

The overjustification effect shows that there are at least two competing types of motivation.

Overjustification effect

The overjustification effect is a phenomenon of motivational psychology, studied and introduced by researchers Lepper, Greene and Nisbett. According to this phenomenon, our intrinsic motivation to do a certain activity decreases when we are offered a reward for it.

In this article we take a tour of human motivation and explain what this effect consists of. In addition, we will see in detail how the experiment that made it known was developed and the results that emerged and that demonstrated such an effect.

What is human motivation?

Before explaining what the overjustification effect consists of, we are going to address the concept of motivation, and explain its two main subtypes: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. All this, because they are concepts inherent to this phenomenon that we are going to talk about.

What is motivation? Some authors define it as “the dynamic root of behavior.” But … what does it mean exactly?

Etymologically, the term “motivation” derives from the Latin “motivus” or “motus”, which means “cause of movement”. Thus, motivation underlies all types of behavior that people manifest, it could be said that it is its “cause” or motor, and it has to do with the desire we have to do a certain action or task, in order to satisfy a need , or to get something we want.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of human motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Let’s see, in summary, what each of them consists of:

1. Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is that motivation that is inherent to the task, that is, the task itself motivates us, we like it, and this motivation has nothing to do with external reinforcers or rewards.

We simply enjoy doing a certain action (for example, doing homework). This is intrinsic motivation, a very important motivation especially in the educational field, where the ideal is for the child to learn for the mere pleasure of learning.

2. Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is “off” the task ; It is the motivation towards the prize or the reward that we obtain when completing a certain task. That is, we carry out certain actions to get something from the outside, such as a compliment, money, a prize …

Overjustification effect: what is it?

The overjustification effect is a phenomenon framed within psychology (specifically, basic psychology, which encompasses the psychology of motivation), which occurs when an external stimulus (for example, a reward, a prize … that makes up the extrinsic motivation) reduces the intrinsic motivation that someone has to perform a certain task.

To quickly illustrate the effect of overjustification, let’s take an example: a child likes to read very much (that is, he has high intrinsic motivation to read), and he reads for the pleasure of reading himself.

Suddenly, his father tells him that every time he finishes a book, he will give him € 5 as a prize, so that he can spend it on whatever he wants. This can make the child’s intrinsic motivation for reading decrease, because the motivation he has to read is influenced by the motivation to get the € 5 (external reward).

That is, you will not only read for the pleasure of reading, but also to get your reward. This is the effect of overjustification, which can appear in both children and adults.

The experiment

Who discovered (and how) the overjustification effect? Researchers Lepper, Greene and Nisbett, through a field experiment developed with children, in a kindergarten.

The investigation of the effect of overjustification starts from the following hypothesis: “when we associate a certain activity with an external reward (extrinsic motivation), we will have less interest in carrying out said activity (intrinsic motivation) if in the future, there is no such reward”.

1. Methodology: first phase of the experiment

The Lepper, Greene and Nisbett experiment was carried out in a kindergarten. There they observed that the children had a certain interest in carrying out different educational activities.

In their experiment on the overjustification effect, the researchers placed children (who were between 3 and 5 years old) to draw and play with markers. Specifically, they were placed in three different experimental conditions, which were:

1.1. Condition 1 (expected reward)

The first condition was that of “expected reward.” It consisted of promising the children that they would receive a “good player” ribbon, for the simple fact of participating in the activity of drawing with markers.

It is important to note at this point that the children, prior to the experiment, already carried out this activity, spontaneously, for the simple fact that they enjoyed doing it (intrinsic motivation).

1.2. Condition 2 (unexpected reward)

The second condition in the experiment was that of “unexpected reward.” Here, the children were not initially told that they would receive an award for doing the activity (nothing was said). Later, at the end of the activity, they did receive the award.

1.3. Condition 3 (no reward)

In the third and final condition, called “no reward,” the children were simply not told about prizes and rewards at any time. That is, in this condition, no prizes were given to the children for completing the drawing activity; it was the control group.

2. Methodology: second phase of the experiment

After applying these conditions, and at the end of the first phase of the experiment, the researchers observed the children in a free environment, where they could play whatever they wanted without premises or restrictions.

The objective of this second phase of the experiment on the overjustification effect was to determine whether or not there were more children who played the drawing activity, this time without the promise of receiving a final reward for it.

3. Results

What results did the Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett experiment provide on the overjustification effect? We are going to know each one of them, according to the experimental condition applied and in relation to the effect of overjustification.

3.1. Expected reward condition

First of all, it was observed that the children subjected to the first experimental condition (expected reward), played much less to draw with the markers in the second phase of the experiment (free play).

If we apply the theory of the effect of overjustification to this result, we can think that the children had diminished or even lost their original intrinsic motivation for the activity, by having a reward (extrinsic motivation) for doing it (in the previous phase of the experiment).

We must bear in mind that they had never had this reward, and that suddenly someone was “rewarding them for playing”.

3.2. Unexpected reward condition

Another of the results of the experiment showed how the children of the second experimental condition (unexpected reward) had not changed their interest in drawing, and they drew the same in the free play phase.

Thus, it was attributed that the children enjoyed drawing prior to the experiment, in the same way that they also enjoyed the activity in the experimental condition (since they did not know that they would have a reward), and in the same way that they played in the second phase of the experiment (free play).

3.3. Condition without reward

Finally, the children in the third experimental condition (without reward) did not show changes in their drawing behaviors or in their interest in the activity. That is, they drew the same in the free play stage.

Following the overjustification effect, since they had never been rewarded for doing so (in the first phase of the experiment), their intrinsic motivation had remained “intact.

Bibliographic references:

  • Grzib, G. (2002). Cognitive and behavioral bases of motivation and emotion. Ramón Areces Study Center. Madrid.
  • Pintrich & Shunck (2006). Motivation in educational contexts. Theory, research and applications.
  • Reeve, J. (2010). Motivation and emotion. 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill / Interamericana. Mexico.
  • Ryan, RM; Deci, EL (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being”. American psychologist 55 (1): 68-78.

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