Skip to Content

What Is the Overjustification Effect?

The overjustification effect happens when people experience less intrinsic motivation after they are rewarded for engaging in an activity. In other words, rewarding people for activities that they already enjoy can actually make them lose interest in it. For example, if you enjoy painting, you might start to enjoy it less if you were rewarded every time you did it.

Simply put, if people are already motivated to engage in an activity that they find inherently enjoyable, adding external rewards for that activity can make the activity less intrinsically motivating.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are the two primary forms of motivation that help drive behavior. These forces can help push people to engage in certain types of behaviors.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation that arises from within. It involves doing things because you find them interesting or simply for the sake of doing them.

Examples of intrinsic motivation can include pursuing a hobby, reading a book for fun, or playing a sport that you find exciting.

This type of motivation is often associated with genuine interest, passion, autonomy, and curiosity. It is a powerful motivator that helps people feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in a behavior to earn a reward. It is driven by external incentives that come from outside the individual.

Examples of extrinsic motivation include being paid to work, studying hard to earn good grades, or competing in an athletic event to win a prize.

This form of motivation can be effective for getting people to engage in behaviors they have no inherent interest in. It can help sustain attention when interest is low, but it can also become a problem if it is overused–or if it is used to overjustify a behavior that is already intrinsically rewarding.

These two types of motivation are not mutually exclusive. In many cases, both work together to play a role in motivating behavior. You might work to earn a paycheck, but you might also genuinely love your job and find it emotionally and intellectually fulfilling.

Research on the Overjustification Effect

The first demonstration of the overjustification effect was performed in the 1970s by psychologist Edward Deci. In his study, college students were tasked with matching a cube puzzle to the configurations on a piece of paper.

Deci’s Research on Overjustification

While the students were initially not given a reward, later sessions involved offering students a small reward for every puzzle they could successfully replicate. 

During the third session, none of the participants were rewarded for solving the puzzles. The researchers found that:

  • First session: Participants worked on puzzles for similar periods of time
  • Second session: Rewarded participants worked longer
  • Third session: Rewarded participants work on puzzles for less time

The researchers interpreted these results to mean that introducing a reward reduced the inherent motivation to work on the puzzles.

Subsequent experiments performed by Deci produced similar results, suggesting that rewarding things that are already intrinsically motivating creates this overjustification effect that reduces motivation.

Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett’s Research

In another famous study on the overjustification effect, researchers Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett divided a group of children who enjoyed drawing into three groups. In the task, the children drew with felt-tipped markers:

  • First group: These children were promised a ribbon for completing the activity.
  • Second group: These children were not told about the reward they would get until the activity was done.
  • Third group: This group was not told about or given any type of reward.

When the children were later allowed to play freely, the kids who had been promised a reward were less likely to play with the felt-tip markers. The overjustification effect suggests that because these kids had come to expect a reward, they lost their interest in the activity they used to enjoy. There was no difference in the kids in group one and group three, who had either received an unexpected reward or received no reward at all.

Recent Research

A 2022 replication of Deci’s original research failed to yield the same results, however. Contrary to Deci’s findings, there were significant individual variations in performance across both groups. Overall, both groups showed decreased task engagement in each session.

What Causes the Overjustification Effect?

There are a few different explanations that may explain why the overjustification effect happens. 

Loss of Autonomy

According to Deci’s self-determination theory, people need to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness in order to feel intrinsically motivated. Offering a reward might make people feel like they have less of a choice about whether they engage in a behavior. 

Instead of doing it because they want to do it, they are left feeling like they have to do it in order to obtain a reward. This causes people to feel like they have less autonomy, lowering their intrinsic motivation.

Changes in Attribution

When external rewards are introduced, people sometimes start to attribute their behavior to the external reinforcement rather than their own internal motivation. This change can shift how people view their own reasons for performing an action. As a result, they may start to see the action as a way to obtain a reward rather than something they enjoy.

Reduced Feelings of Competence

Competence is another key component of intrinsic motivation. When rewards are given, the message they send can be that a person lacks the competence to perform the task on their own. This can make people feel like they can only perform the task because they are being rewarded for it.

Immediate vs. Future Focus

External rewards provide an immediate benefit. Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are more often associated with long-term rewards. The short-term gains people receive often overshadow the benefits that are further off in the future, which can negatively affect intrinsic motivation.

Examples of the Overjustification Effect

A few examples of how the overjustification effect might look in different contexts include:


Consider a situation where a student enjoys learning about math and solving equations. Their teacher introduces a reward system that prizes students who earn high scores on homework and exams. As a result, the student starts to focus more on the reward rather than their intrinsic love of math. As a result, their interest and motivation begin to drop.


Consider a situation where an employee enjoys meeting with new clients. Their employer introduces a system in which employees receive a bonus every time they sign up a new customer. Instead of enjoying the experience of chatting with potential clients, the process becomes a chore that the employee only does in order to get the bonus.


Imagine a situation where a person loves to create art. They begin selling their art and find themselves creating art that is more likely to sell but that they don’t enjoy as much. Over time, their intrinsic desire to create begins to decline. 

How Does the Overjustification Effect Influence Behavior?

The overjustification effect impacts behavior in a variety of ways:

Rewards Can Shift Your Focus

Initially, individuals engage in an activity because they find it inherently enjoyable, interesting, or personally satisfying. Their focus is on the intrinsic aspects of the activity itself.

When external rewards are introduced, there’s a potential shift in focus. Individuals may start to prioritize the external incentives, such as money, prizes, or recognition, over the intrinsic enjoyment of the activity.

Rewards Can Change Your Perception

The activity is perceived as valuable for its own sake. Individuals derive a sense of accomplishment, autonomy, and enjoyment from the task.

The presence of external rewards can change how individuals perceive the reasons behind their behavior. The activity may start to be seen more as a means to an end (getting the reward) rather than as an end in itself.

Rewards Can Reduce Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation drives individuals to engage in activities without needing external inducements. The pleasure and satisfaction come from within.

The overjustification effect can lead to a decline in intrinsic motivation. If external rewards become the primary focus, individuals may feel less motivated by the inherent enjoyment or satisfaction they once derived from the activity.

There May Be Long-Term Effects

Intrinsic motivation tends to foster long-term engagement and commitment to an activity.

If intrinsic motivation diminishes, there might be long-term consequences. Once the external rewards are removed, individuals may struggle to find the same level of interest or commitment to the activity without the external reinforcement.

It’s important to remember that the overjustification effect doesn’t happen universally. Individual responses tend to vary. Some may seamlessly integrate external rewards without compromising intrinsic motivation, while others may experience a more pronounced shift in focus.

How to Cope With the Overjustification Effect

It is always possible to completely eliminate the overjustification effect, but there are some steps you can take to help reduce its impact. Managing the overjustification effect involves incorporating strategies to balance external rewards with intrinsic motivation.

Tactics that can help include:

Focus on the Intrinsic Enjoyment

Try to focus on your inherent enjoyment of the activity. Remind yourself why you initially found the task enjoyable and satisfying. This can help reinforce the inherent value of the activity beyond external rewards.

Incorporate Intrinsic Rewards

Incorporate intrinsic rewards alongside external incentives. Emphasize the personal satisfaction, skill development, or enjoyment that comes from engaging in the activity itself. This dual approach can help maintain a well-rounded perspective on motivations.

Strive to Maintain Autonomy

Try to help people maintain as much autonomy as possible. When people feel in control of their actions, it helps protect intrinsic motivation. Avoid overly controlling environments that make the activity feel more like a means to an end.

Provide Unexpected Rewards

If external rewards are necessary, consider using unexpected or surprise incentives. Unexpected rewards are less likely to lead to the overjustification effect because individuals don’t initially associate the activity solely with external reinforcement.

Emphasize Mastery and Competence

Focus on promoting a sense of mastery and competence in the task. Recognize and celebrate personal growth and achievements related to skill development. Acknowledging progress and competence can play a role in reinforcing intrinsic motivation.

Encourage Intrinsic Goal Setting

Guide individuals to set personal, intrinsic goals related to the activity. This can help shift the focus from external rewards to internal benchmarks and personal achievements, fostering a sense of accomplishment and motivation.

By incorporating these strategies, individuals and organizations can minimize the negative effects of the overjustification effect. In doing so, they can protect and even nurture intrinsic motivation while getting the benefits of external incentives when appropriate.

Key Points to Remember

  1. The overjustification effect occurs when introducing external rewards for an intrinsically motivated behavior leads to a decline in the individual’s intrinsic motivation for that activity.
  2. External incentives, such as money or prizes, may shift the focus from the inherent enjoyment of an activity to the pursuit of external rewards, potentially diminishing the pleasure derived from the task itself.
  3. Strategies to manage the overjustification effect include emphasizing intrinsic enjoyment, using unexpected rewards, promoting task autonomy, and encouraging intrinsic goal setting.
  4. Balancing external incentives with a focus on personal satisfaction, mastery, and competence can help mitigate the negative impact of external rewards on intrinsic motivation.


Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105–115.

Martela, F., & Riekki, T. J. J. (2018). Autonomy, competence, relatedness, and beneficence: A multicultural comparison of the four pathways to meaningful work. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1157.

Peters, K. P., Grauerholz-Fisher, E., Vollmer, T. R., & Van Arsdale, A. (2022). An evaluation of the overjustification hypothesis: A replication of Deci (1971). Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice, 22(3), 258–264.