Apr 15

The Joy of Reading and the Overjustification Effect


Source: Parents-Choice.org

When my daughter was in second grade and all through the summer, I could not get her to put her books down. Now that she is in third grade, giving her a book to read is like a form of punishment. Somewhere, at sometime, my daughter’s enjoyment of reading turned into the dreadful “chore” of reading, a change most likely contributed to the overjustification effect.

Alexitch (2012) defines the overjustification effect as “the loss of motivation and interest as a result of receiving an excessive external reward” (p.198). In other words, my daughter may have initially been intrinsically motivated to read, purely because it was enjoyable for her. However, when she began to receive an external reward for reading, such as a weekly prize from the 3rd grade treasure box, the motivation to read suddenly became about the prize rather than the initial enjoyment of reading. Now, one would think that the incentive to receive a prize would motivate a child who already enjoys reading to read more, rather than reduce her motivation to read at all, but research has proven otherwise.

Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) observed three groups of preschoolers to see the effects of external awards on intrinsic motivation to play with a set of magic markers. First, all of the preschoolers were given the option to play with the magic markers, among several other activities, over a three day period. The children observed playing with the markers on their own were then randomly divided into three groups two weeks later. All three groups were told that a visitor was coming to see the kind of pictures they would draw with the magic markers. Then, two of the groups were asked if they would like to draw a picture for the visitor, while the third group was told they would be given an award if they drew a picture for the visitor. All of the children enthusiastically agreed and drew pictures for the visitor with the magic markers. After the children finished their drawings, the first group was returned to their classroom. Members of the second group were unexpectedly given a “Good Player Award” certificate and members of the third group were given the “Good Player Award” certificates as they expected. Finally, the children’s time playing with the magic markers on their own was observed again a week to two weeks later and compared with the time they spent playing with them before the “visitor” came. The results revealed that the children in the third group, who were told they would receive a reward, spent a significantly less amount of time playing with the magic markers and, when they did, the quality of their pictures decreased as well. Meanwhile, the quality of work and time spent using the magic markers remained the same for the other two groups. Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) concluded that anticipated external rewards for engagement in an activity does negatively decrease the “pleasures and satisfaction of [the activity] in its own right” (p. 135), particularly when the activity’s intrinsic value was initially high.

Now I know why my attempts to reward my daughter with ice cream and play dates when she has completed a week’s worth of reading homework has been unsuccessful! Without knowing it, my efforts have added to the effect rather than reversing it. So then, what is a mother to do when her daughter’s motivation to read has been decreased, due to the overjustification effect? Further research has revealed that the overjustification effect “may be minimized or even reversed” (p. 201) by focusing on the personal enjoyment and satisfaction one feels while engaging in the activity rather than any external rewards received after the activity is completed (Alexitch, 2012). I guess my daughter and I will be spending some time talking about the joys of reading tonight.


Alexitch (2012). Applying social psychology to education. In F. W. Schneider, J. A. Gruman, & L. M. Coutts (Authors), Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (Second ed., pp. 191-215). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), 129-137. doi:10.1037/h0035519

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