What is the overjustification effect
An overjustification effect, or undermining effect, occurs when a person engages in an intrinsically rewarding activity for an external reward. This reward then causes a decrease in the person’s subsequent intrinsic interest in that activity.
When parents use rewards and punishments to motivate their children to study or do household chores, they are often baffled by inconsistent results.
At first, they seemed to work, but then they stopped working. What happened?
Soon, parents are angry and frustrated because they have tried multiple types of rewards and punishments but nothing works.
Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation
There are two types of motivation – intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation occurs when people perform an activity out of interest because they derive spontaneous satisfaction from it. The feeling of satisfaction is an internal reward that creates the person’s intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, requires a link between an activity and a separable outcome. Satisfaction does not arise from the activity itself, but rather from the external incentive or consequences it produces.
So, when children engage in an activity they enjoy, they are intrinsically motivated. When they do it for an extrinsic reward or to avoid punishment, they are extrinsically motivated.
Parents who have tried everything, but nothing works typically use external factors, rather than intrinsic reasons, to instill extrinsic motivation in their children.
To understand why punishments and rewards don’t work well, let’s examine a classic field experiment by David Greene and Mark Lepper.
In the study, preschoolers were asked to participate in coloring activities that they were very interested in. Some children were offered a reward for completing the activity while others were not. After several weeks, the children were given another opportunity to participate in the activity without a promise of a reward. Those who had previously been given a prize showed less interest in the activity than those who had never been offered one1.
This is an example of the overjustification effect.
Inducing a child to engage in an activity for an extrinsic goal undermined their initial internal drive to do it. Introducing extrinsic factors turned play into work. As a result of the overjustification effect, they no longer color for its own sake, but rather to earn a reward.
The shift in motivation can be explained by two main theories. They are the self-perception theory and cognitive evaluation theory, which later has expanded into the self-determination theory2.
The self-perception theory, proposed by Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett at the University of Michigan, suggests that when offered extrinsic motivators, people rethink their reasons for engagement. They no longer perceive the enjoyable activity merely as such. The introduction of rewards overjustifies the prior intrinsic reason to do engage in it3.
Since they get paid for doing the activity, this has caused them to rethink their reasons for doing it.
Following a reward, someone who initially performs an activity for enjoyment will be less likely to do it again for no reward.
Intrinsic enjoyment is no longer an enough reason. In the absence of external reinforcement, they see no point in doing it4.
Cognitive evaluation theory (CET)
In cognitive evaluation theory, another possible explanation proposed by Edward Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, intrinsic motivation is determined by a person’s need to feel competent and self-determined.
Offering an extrinsic factor for engaging in an intrinsically interesting activity changes a person’s perception of competence or self-determination diminishing their intrinsic desire5.
Self-determination theory (SDT)
In contrast to the cognitive evaluation theory that focuses on differentiating intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, the self-determination theory makes clear the difference between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation6.
Individuals with autonomous motivation feel in control of their decision to participate.
Engaging in an activity because it interests them is entirely voluntary. Therefore, intrinsic motivation is autonomous .
A controlled motivation, however, involves acting in a pressured manner, one that is accompanied by the feeling of being forced into the activities.
SDT suggests that these three innate human needs underline autonomous motivation:
- Autonomy – free to decide whether to take on an activity
- Competence – feel capable and competent
- Relatedness – feel connected with others
By rewarding children for an activity, their feelings of autonomy are compromised. The activity no longer feels voluntary, and therefore autonomous motivation is reduced.
Overjustification effect examples in parenting
The overjustification effect is a common phenomenon in parenting.
“Positive reinforcement” in the form of rewards is often used by parents to motivate their children’s compliant behavior. By doing so, they not only decrease their children’s intrinsic motivation to behave but also instill the wrong values in them.
Paying for chores
Contributing to the family by keeping the house clean and tidy should be the primary reason for kids to do chores.
However, children’s perception of chores changes when they are paid to do so. They realize they should no longer do it “for free.”. If parents don’t keep paying, they don’t feel obligated to help around the house.
The kids have been taught that chores are no longer about contributing to the family. Instead, chores are about making money.
According to research, children who are rewarded for doing chores tend to be less altruistic. Paying for chores instills an entirely different value in kids.7.
Paying for good grades
Another common parenting tactic that exemplifies the overjustification effect is providing financial incentives for good grades.
Learning about the world around us is inherently fun and an intrinsic reward in itself. Toddlers love getting into everything and exploring it all.
But when children receive a contingent financial reward, learning ceases to be a fun autonomous task.
It turns out that once parents start this practice, they have to keep paying to maintain good performance. It becomes increasingly difficult to get children to study or do homework without the help of external motivators. Parents have to keep increasing the reward.
Eventually, it stops working when the child does not have any internal motivation left.
Overjustification effect vs operant conditioning
To classical conditioning theorists, the overjustification effect is an anomaly.
The overjustification effect is controversial because it challenges previous psychological findings on the effectiveness of reinforcement in altering animal and human behavior.
Both theories have merit under different conditions, and finding the right balance can be a tricky thing for parents.
Here are 3 ways to provide children with positive affirmation without a detrimental effect on their motivation.
Form of reward
Whether an extrinsic reinforcement has a negative effect on a child’s overall performance depends on the kind of reward used.
When rewards do not reflect the level of ability, they lead to less intrinsic motivation. But rewards that incite feelings of competence, such as verbal praise or positive feedback, can result in greater intrinsic motivation.
In place of incentives, verbal rewards that emphasize informational aspects can be used to complement the child’s competency or skill development8.
“You worked hard and didn’t give up even though it was very hard at the beginning. You persevered!”
Type of tasks
Activities can be categorized schematically into expressive or instrumental tasks.
Expressive tasks are play that evoke positive emotions and intrinsic motivation naturally.
Instrumental tasks are means to separate outcomes, such as rewards and punishment.
An expressive task feels like play and the participant experiences it as intrinsically motivating. An instrumental task is perceived as work and the individual participates only to reap other rewards.
Overjustification occurs when the perceived characteristics of a task change from being expressive to being instrumental9.
So, when children are rewarded for playing puzzles, they are more likely to experience a decrease in internal drive than those who are mowing the lawn.
Expectation of reward
Rewards aren’t always a bad thing.
Parents sometimes give children gifts in an effort to recognize and celebrate their achievement. Using unexpected rewards sparingly has been found not to affect one’s intrinsic motivation10.
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