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Overjustification Effect

Overjustification Effect


The overjustification effect is a phenomenon in which an external incentive (e.g. a financial bonus or prize) for doing something reduces a person’s intrinsic motivation to complete a task. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and links to three important drivers of behaviour; autonomy, mastery and purpose.

In his book Drive, the American psychologist Daniel Pink, argues that a focus on extrinsic rewards (i.e. external incentives) can deliver short-term results, but it is difficult to sustain. This is because such incentives don’t help mastery which is an important source of achievement and intrinsic motivation.

A reward for completing a task whether or not it is done well may reinforce the feeling that the task isn’t worth doing. It positions all the satisfaction in the future. Turning the task into a chore first, takes all the joy out of undertaking the activity.

The Evidence:

In 1973 Lepper, Greene and Nisbett conducted research in a nursery school to understand motivations towards rewards. The researchers ask 3 to 5 year-olds to play and draw using felt pens. Children were put into one of three groups.

Expected Award Condition:

A “Good Player” ribbon for taking part in the activity which involved the user of felt-tipped pens.

Unexpected Award Condition:

In this group children were only told about the reward they would be receiving until after the activity had finished.

No-Reward Condition:

This was the control group as they were not told or given any kind of reward.

Afterwards children were observed in a free-play environment to see if there was a significant difference in the number of pupils taking part in the activity.


The children who were promised a reward played significantly less with the pens. However, there was no change in the behaviour of those children who unexpectedly received the reward after performing the activity. Or those who did not receive any reward at all.

However, research at Southern Methodist University found that there is a way to prevent the overjustification effect. The study indicates that when people are rewarded on how well they complete it can produce pleasure of intrinsic validation. The higher the reward, the more intense the feeling will be. The more likely they will put more effort into the activity next time.


The research suggests that rewards don’t motivate people to work harder unless they are linked to how well they perform. Money alone doesn’t achieve that. It becomes a transactional relationship and we can feel we are being paid off. Depending on how many times we play a game or reach a set goal it can make us feel like a machine.

Money should only be used as a reward if it is unexpected. In addition to compliments and praise about competency for doing a good job. This allows people to explain their behaviour upon motivations that come from within and not that they were doing it purely for the money.

What does this mean for gaming?

The implication for gaming is that achievements and rewards linked to repetition (e.g. number of hands played) or completing set tasks (collect 10 standard Pokémon’s) will actually harm intrinsic motivation. If this happens a player’s motivation then becomes reliant on extrinsic rewards (e.g. bonuses and trophies) rather than the game they love.

Image of achievements on partypoker.com

Image source: partypoker.com

This suggests that poorly thought out achievements and rewards may damage player motivation in the long run. The danger here is that if the extrinsic rewards are not compelling enough or run out the player will quickly lose interest and go elsewhere.

Many of the achievements on the partypoker.com site are purely related to repetition and have no link to competency. Gaming companies will also have more success if they ensure that achievements and trophies are linked to how well players perform. It should also praise and reward improvements in game competency.


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