Overjustification, Replacement, Rewards

Overjustification, Replacement, Rewards


My recent Google Tech Talk has triggered a tremendous outpouring of interest, insightful comments and praise. I’m really grateful to the opportunity to have done the talk and the reaction it’s received.

The followup has been almost uniformly interesting, and it’s given me a chance to think about some of the ideas I’ve shared and refine them going forward. In particular, two of my twitter followers/commenters on the blog reached out with insightful ideas that I wanted to share.

First, Georg Mir (twitter) wrote a really interesting blog post on Overjustification – the fallout from replacing intrinsic motivations with extrinsic rewards (generally, previously intrinsically-motivated behaviors are extinguished when extrinsic rewards are introduced then withdrawn). His main contention in the post is that when user behavior is suppressed, it’s because we shift our focus of mastery from the intrinsic behavior (piano playing, say) to the positive feedback of others (our parents).

I think this is a very very compelling argument. Although mastery alone isn’t enough to explain why such powerful extinguishment occurs, it’s nonetheless obvious that we moved the carrot from the core behavior to love/affection in the parental example.

This understanding also reinforces one of my core assertions (amplified by Michael Kim on this blog’s comments) that while intrinsic motivation may not be entirely dead, I would caution any business to continue to rely on it as a principal revenue driver, the way Don Draper might have in Mad Men.

The second response in the blog that I thought was really interesting was also in Michael Kim and Lukasz’s comments on the blog post. They both referenced the very interesting Dan Pink talk at TED from last year in which he argues that extrinsic motivators don’t work for lateral thinking tasks. He does a great job of highlighting important social science research that shows that cash motivation can make people perform more poorly than they would have without it.

Pink and I agree 100% on an important point: Cash is generally not the best motivator. In my previous posts I’ve mentioned my SAPS acronym: Status, Access, Power, Stuff – as a new way of thinking about reward schemes. Cash, Stuff are at the bottom of the list for a reason – they are substantially less powerful than status, access and power at motivating user behavior.

But I wouldn’t draw the conclusion that “extrinsic rewards don’t work that well” – as Pink and others have suggested. I think they are not thinking laterally enough about their experiment design, TBH. 🙂 The research only studies cash, and cash just isn’t that good of a motivator. I’d love to see the experiments re-run with Frequent Fliers (figuring out how to get the most mileage out of a trip) or World of Warcraft (Words with Friends? Farmville?) players who exist in a status “system” to which they are clearly aligned.

The empirical evidence says that well structured external rewards (which are SAPS-based) are able to produce superior results – as measured in “engagement”. I’d love to see actual companies operate on this premise.


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  1. If we take as given that external rewards can be effective at producing superior results AND that they can undermine intrinsic motivation, is it fair to say that they should only be applied to those who aren’t intrinsically motivated to perform an action?

  2. Just rediscovered this blog post. Cash is a bad motivator, because this kind of reward can be gained from a lot of different resources. If Cash-Incentive-1 (being paid 100$ for 10hrs of work) isn’t as effective as CASH-Incentive-2 (asking your parents for 100$) then CI1 will not be as attractive.

    As soon as your only motivation is cash, you suddenly realize that there might be better deals elsewhere.

    Stuff is less valuable, because it is ubiquitous. Status is unique to each group OTOH. It cannot be easily replaced.

    Kind regards,
    Georg Mir

    PS: let me know, if you want to check out my pen&paper roleplaying game Michtim: Fluffy Adventures 🙂