The Overjustification Effect in Education

How the educational system approaches motivation in the classroom has a lasting impact on a student’s inclination to learn.  First, it is important to note the two different types of motivation:  intrinsic and extrinsic.  According to the APA, intrinsic motivation is defined as “an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself (e.g., a genuine interest in a subject studied) rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained (e.g., money, course credits)” (APA, 2018).  Whereas the definition for extrinsic motivation is essentially flipped around, “an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself (e.g., a genuine interest in a subject studied) rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained (e.g., money, course credits)” (APA, 2018).

Ideally, intrinsic motivation is in the forefront of the learning process.  However, that is not always the case in the educational system.  It has been argued by psychologists that schools are very extrinsically oriented (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).  Can you recall any of your teachers using a type of reward in the classroom? Pizza parties, prizes, extra credit, etc.  These are things that fall under the category of extrinsic motivation to complete a task.  This is not always a bad thing, but it can certainly lead to a shift in perspective. Students may start to look at engaging in schoolwork for the benefit of the reward, rather than the enjoyment of learning something new.  This shift in motivation is known as the overjustification effect, the loss of motivation and interest as a result of receiving an excessive external reward (Schneider et al., 2012).

Deci (1971) conducted a study that shows the effects of extrinsic motivators on intrinsic motivation.  Undergraduate students that displayed intrinsic motivation for completing a puzzle (doing it out of enjoyment) were separated into two groups.  Those in the experimental group were offered a payment for solving the puzzle, which now blended extrinsic factors with the initial intrinsic motivation.  The experimental group then showed an increase in time spent on working on the puzzle due to the reward.  The financial incentive was then removed and both groups were compared.  Those that were previously paid to complete the puzzle were remarkably less motivated to complete the puzzle, compared to the control group who continued to work on the puzzle longer, which confirms the overjustification effect.  Interestingly, Deci conducted another experiment in the study which used verbal reinforcement and positive feedback as forms of extrinsic motivation (replacing the money incentive).  The group that received the positive feedback showed an increase in intrinsic motivation, compared to the group that did not receive any reinforcement or feedback.

These findings are important to note for ways to combat the overjustification effect in schools as supported by self-determination theory (SDT).  This is the degree to which an individual sees themselves as being autonomous and having a choice in actions and behaviors, without feeling pressured to behave in a particular manner (Deci & Ryan, 1985).  Extrinsic motivation can undermine an individual’s sense of autonomy and thus their intrinsic motivation to do something because they attribute their actions to the external reward.  Educational systems should consider these effects, and instead strive to foster an environment that strengthens students’ sense of autonomy which will increase their intrinsic motivation to learn.


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

Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York:  Plenum Press.

Intrinsic Motivation. APA Dictionary of Psychology.  Retrieved from

Extrinsic Motivation. APA Dictionary of Psychology.  Retrieved from

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash


  1. Thank you for writing about the overjustification effect. I found the subject very interesting. I am an adult learner. I chose a year ago to go back to school, and to enroll in a Bachelor degree in Psychology because I am passionate about the subject. I love reading book about psychology, and listening to Tedtalk and lecture about psychology. But, when I started my bachelor something very weird happened to me. Sometimes, I found myself bored by the same subject I once found fascinating. I struggled with a lack of motivation when I had to start working on my assignment. Having to learn about psychology was less enjoyable than when I learned about it on my own. I was puzzled, and wonder if psychology is still a passion for me. Once I learned about the overjustification effet I was relieved. Some advices provided in the textbook were very helpful to me. First, I remind myself why I have chosen to go to college in the first place. Then, I try to address the course material with curiosity. Also, I try to forget about the grade, which isn’t always easy. Finally, I sustain my intrinsic interest in psychology by reading book that are not required for the courses.
    Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles ; London ; New Dehli ; Singapore ; Washington DC ; Melbourne: SAGE.

  2. Your post is very well written. I think what I found to be most enlightening was the second study by Deci who decided to repeat the puzzle experiment replacing extrinsic motivation of money with praise. The results of this study indicate that intrinsic motivation rose even higher than the control group and the students wanted to keep working on the puzzle. I think that when we look at education there might be some significant opportunities for students if the teachers were able to recognize that all students are capable of success. So the question is, how can the teachers set these students up to succeed?

    I once read a book called The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander. He was the musical director of the New England Conservatory of Music where he used the coach approach to enrolling all students into the possibility of their own learning. At the beginning of the term in is course, he would ask all students to write a letter to him, explaining what they were going to do to be able to achieve an A in their course with him. This is a brilliant strategy that provides both the teacher and the student with a foundation of a successful self-fulfilling prophecy. This prophecy suggests that our expectations of others lend itself to how we treat them. (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012). With this exercise, both parties are engaged in what a successful outcome would look like and it was as organic and unique as each individual in the class.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar