When you set a goal, you probably have a certain desired outcome in mind. Whether you want to achieve a fitness milestone or crush a big project at work, it’s likely that you’ll have some kind of vision for what the end of that process looks like. Feeling proud and accomplished are natural reactions to reaching a goal, but you might be looking forward to other rewards, too. Things like money, fame, or praise from other people can provide a lot of motivation, but what happens when that isn’t enough? What happens when material or superficial rewards don’t keep us going when we start losing steam? Enter the overjustification effect.
“The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive, like money, awards, prizes, and acclaim from peers, decreases someone’s intrinsic motivation to perform,” says Taylor Thomas, a certified endurance coach and founder of Thomas Endurance Coaching. When we continually work hard for the purpose of gaining extrinsic motivators, we can begin to lose our intrinsic motivation — the internal “rewards” that keep us going.
Contrary to what we often see in movies or TV, flashy prizes for hard work aren’t always the best incentives for consistent motivation. Instead, when you start working toward something you want to accomplish, Thomas notes that it’s important to see the value in the process — “not just the big external wins that provide the dopamine response,” he tells Bustle. That response comes from the “feel good” hormone, dopamine, which provides the feeling of pleasure straight from our body’s reward system. Below, Thomas explains how the overjustification effect impacts your motivation and how to overcome it.
What Is The Overjustification Effect?
Hitting your savings goal or successfully making it through Dry January can feel amazing, and provide a sense of optimism for what your hard work can continue to bring in the future. Accomplishing a goal you’ve had for a long time and receiving compliments from others on your efforts rarely hurts. According to Thomas, however, the overjustification effect means that, over time, solely striving for these outside rewards can do you and your inner sense of determination a disservice in the long run.
In 1971, Edward Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, set up an experiment with undergraduate students by having them complete a puzzle in two groups. The first group completed it twice with no material reward, and the second group received money the first time they finished the puzzle — adding an external motivator to the task. The second group was asked to do the puzzle again, but this time, no cash was on the line. In the end, the experiment proved that blending the external motivator (money) with the internal motivation (the satisfaction of completing a task) made the second group much less motivated to finish the puzzle, as opposed to the first group, which was highly motivated by their own internal satisfaction.
“The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive, like money, awards, prizes, and acclaim from peers decreases someone’s intrinsic motivation to perform,” Thomas explains. When we continually focus on and work hard for the purpose of gaining extrinsic motivators like money or praise, we can begin to neglect our intrinsic motivation — that inner feeling of pride and accomplishment in ourselves, for ourselves.
While it’s possible to find a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, the fine line between the two can often get us too caught up in one or the other, Thomas says. “Motivation is a complex mechanism that impacts everything that we do… In order to see our goals through, we have to build skill sets that support us no matter what comes our way.” Before you can figure out what skills you need to overcome a lack of intrinsic motivation, it’s important to be able to spot the signs of the overjustification effect.
Signs That You’re Experiencing The Overjustification Effect
The pride of a job well done is a fulfilling thing to experience… until it’s not enough. According to Thomas, you might be experiencing the overjustification effect if you “[struggle] to find value in the pursuit of [your] goals without external validation — things such as events, social media buzz, friend group support, etc. The external piece isn't bad, but it can't always be there and it is fleeting.”
On the flip side, Thomas says that, “An individual could also be too intrinsically motivated and shy away from opportunities to show up outside of what they can control.” If you are hesitant to accept an award or compliments from others from time to time, this could also result in a negative effect on your motivation and hinder your work or performance. As an example, Thomas explains that in athletes, “This can look like race day anxiety, fear of training with a group, and not wanting to verbalize their goals.”
How To Overcome The Overjustification Effect
Without a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, you might find it very difficult to stay persistent in your journey to accomplishing your goals. Thomas suggests that finding your passion — the reason why you do what you do — is the key. “The best way to overcome [the overjustification effect] is to work to keep it from ever coming up,” he says. “Being rooted in your ‘why’ is the most powerful tool someone can have. This is your core reason for pursuing your goals. It has to come from a place that aligns with your core values, and what brings you joy. Building a strong narrative around your ‘why’ is the first step.”
One way to do this? Forming a plan to help keep you motivated the right way, says Thomas. “Identify the process required to reach your goals. Set small benchmarks along the way. Identify small ‘wins’ that will bring joy and excitement.” Figuring out which “wins” will keep you on the path to achieving your goals is up to you, so as long as you find the fun and excitement in that process, you’ll find success.