What Is the Overjustification Effect?

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The overjustification effect is a phenomenon in which being rewarded for doing something actually diminishes intrinsic motivation to perform that action. Think about a few of the things that you love to do. Is there a sport such as volleyball or basketball that you love to play? Are you passionate about knitting, reading, or collecting movie memorabilia?

Normally, you engage in these activities simply for the sheer joy and pleasure of it, not for some type of outside reinforcement.

The activity itself serves as its own reward. Would it surprise you to learn that when you are rewarded for things that you already enjoy doing, your desire to participate in those activities is sometimes lessened?

In psychology, this is known as the overjustification effect and it can have a serious impact on your motivations and behaviors. Let's explore what this effect is and how it can influence behavior.

A Closer Look at the Overjustification Effect

The overjustification effect occurs when an external incentive decreases a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a behavior or participate in an activity. Researchers have found that when extrinsic rewards (such as money and prizes) are given for actions that people already find intrinsically rewarding, they will become less internally motivated to pursue those activities in the future.

For example, imagine that children at a preschool are allowed to play with fun toys during their free time.

If caregivers begin giving kids a reward for playing with these toys, the children may actually begin to feel less intrinsically motivated to play with those toys.

What Causes the Overjustification Effect?

Why does the overjustification effect occur? According to one theory, people tend to pay more attention to these external rewards rather than their own enjoyment of the activity.

As a result, people think that their participation in the activity is the result of the external rewards rather than their own internal appreciation of the behavior.

Another possible explanation is that people sometimes view external reinforcement as a coercive force. Since they feel like they are being "bribed" into performing the behavior, they assume that they are doing it only for this external reinforcement.


Research has found that if extrinsic reinforcement is dependent upon doing something well, then the behavior is less influenced by the overjustification effect. Being rewarded for studying, for example, probably will not diminish any intrinsic motivation you may have to study. This is because your grade is a performance-contingent reinforcer. They reinforce your studying behavior, but they are dependent upon actually doing well rather than simply going through the motions.

Research also suggests that using verbal praise as a reward also warrants some caution. Children who are praised for their effort ("You worked really hard on that assignment!") rather than their abilities ("You are so smart!") tend to believe that success hinges on effort rather than innate talent.

Children who develop this type of mindset are also more likely to persist in the face of obstacles.

Learn more about motivation:


Breckler, S. J., Olson, J. M., & Wiggins, E. C. (2006). Social Psychology Alive. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Griggs, R. A. (2010). Psychology: A concise introduction. New York: Worth Publishers.

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