Why Rewards Don't Work (Neither Does Merit Pay)

The Overjustification Effect

In 1973, Lepper, Greene and Nisbett met with teachers of a preschool class, the sort that generates a steady output of macaroni art and paper-bag vests. They arranged for the children to have a period of free time in which the tots could choose from a variety of different fun activities. Meanwhile, the psychologists would watch from behind a one-way mirror and take notes. The teachers agreed, and the psychologists watched. To proceed, they needed children with a natural affinity for art. So as the kids played, the scientists searched for the ones who gravitated toward drawing and coloring activities. Once they identified the artists of the group, the scientists watched them during free time and measured their participation and interest in drawing for later comparison.

They then divided the children into three groups. They offered Group A a glittering certificate of awesomeness if the artists drew during the next fun time. They offered Group B nothing, but if the kids in Group B happened to draw they received an unexpected certificate of awesomeness identical to the one received by Group A. The experimenters told Group C nothing ahead of time, and later the scientists didn’t award a prize if those children went for the colored pencils and markers. The scientists then watched to see how the kids performed during a series of playtimes over three days. They awarded the prizes, stopped observations, and waited two weeks. When they returned, the researchers watched as the children faced the same the choice as before the experiment began. Three groups, three experiences, many fun activities – how do you think their feelings changed?

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Well, Group B and Group C didn’t change at all. They went to the art supplies and created monsters and mountains and houses with curly-cue smoke streams crawling out of rectangular chimneys with just as much joy as they had before they met the psychologists. Group A, though, did not. They were different people now. The children in Group A “spent significantly less time” drawing than did the others, and they “showed a significant decrease in interest in the activity” as compared to before the experiment. Why?

The children in Group A were swept up, overpowered, their joy perverted by the overjustification effect. The story they told themselves wasn’t the same story the other groups were telling. That’s how the effect works.

Self-perception theory says you observe your own behavior and then, after the fact, make up a story to explain it. That story is sometimes close to the truth, and sometimes it is just something nice that makes you feel better about being a person. For instance, researchers at Stanford University once divided students into two groups. One received a small cash payment for turning wooden knobs round and round for an hour. The other group received a generous payment for the same task. After the hour, a researcher asked students in each group to tell the next person after them who was about to perform the same boring task that turning knobs was fun and interesting. After that, everyone filled out a survey in which they were asked to say how they truly felt. The people paid a pittance reported the study was a blast. The people paid well reported it was awful. Subjects in both groups lied to the person after them, but the people paid well had a justification, an extrinsic reward to fall back on. The other group had no safety net, no outside justification, so they invented one inside. To keep from feeling icky, they found solace in an internal justification – they thought, “you know, it really was fun when you think about.” That’s called the insufficient justification effect, the yang to overjustification’s yin. In telling themselves the story, the only difference was the size of the reward and whether or not they felt extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. You are driven at the fundamental level in most everything you choose to do by either intrinsic or extrinsic goals.

Intrinsic motivations come from within. As Daniel Pink explained in his excellent book, Drive, those motivations often include mastery, autonomy, and purpose. There are some things you do just because they fulfill you, or they make you feel like you are becoming better at a task, or that you are a master of your destiny, or that you play a role in the grand scheme of things, or that you are helping society in some way. Intrinsic rewards demonstrate to yourself and others the value of being you. They are blurry and difficult to quantify. Charted on a graph, they form long slopes stretching into infinity. You strive to become an amazing cellist, or you volunteer in the campaign of an inspiring politician, or you build the starship Enterprise in Minecraft.

Extrinsic motivations come from without. They are tangible baubles handed over for tangible deeds. They usually exist outside of you before you begin a task. These sorts of motivations include money, prizes and grades, or in the case of punishment, the promise of losing something you like or gaining something you do not. Extrinsic motivations are easy to quantify, and can be demonstrated in bar graphs or tallied on a calculator. You work a double shift for the overtime pay so you can make rent. You put in the hours to become a doctor hoping your father will finally deliver the praise for which you long. You say no to the cheesecake so you can fit into those pants at the Christmas party. If you can admit to yourself that the reward is the only reason you are doing what you are doing – the situps, the spreadsheet, the speed limit – it is probably extrinsic.

Whether a reward is intrinsic or extrinsic helps determine the setting of your narrative – the marketplace or the heart. As Dan Ariely writes in his book, Predictably Irrational, you tend to unconsciously evaluate your behavior and that of others in terms of social norms or market norms. Helping a friend move for free doesn’t feel the same as helping a friend move for $50. It feels wonderful to slip into the same bed with your date after getting to know them and staying up one night making key lime cupcakes and talking about the differences and similarities between Breaking Bad and The Wire, but if after all of that the other person tosses you a $100 bill and says, “Thanks, that was awesome,” you will feel crushed by the terrible weight of market norms. Payments in terms of social norms are intrinsic, and thus your narrative remains impervious to the overjustification effect. Those sorts of payments come as praise and respect, a feeling of mastery or camaraderie or love. Payments in terms of market norms are extrinsic, and your story becomes vulnerable to overjustification.

Marketplace payments come as something measurable, and in turn they make your motivation measurable when before it was nebulous, up for interpretation and easy to rationalize.

The deal the children struck with the experimenters ruined their love of art during playtime, not because they received a reward. After all, Group B got the same reward and kept their desire to draw. No, it wasn’t the prize but the story they told themselves about why they chose what they chose, why they did what they did. During the experiment, Group C thought, “I just drew this picture because I love to draw!” Group B thought, “I just got rewarded for doing something I love to do!” Group A thought, “I just drew this to win an award!” When all three groups were faced with the same activity, Group A was faced with a metacognition, a question, a burden unknown to the other groups. The scientists in the knob-turning study and the child artists study showed Skinner’s view was too narrow.

Thinking about thinking changes things. Extrinsic rewards can steal your narrative.

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