The overjustification effect: A potential peril of gamification

I just read an interesting post on the GCO website describing “how to provide more meaningful rewards in your parenting.”  This article touched on a phenomenon that I believe needs to be examined more closely in gamification – the overjustification effect. The overjustification effect occurs when a person is given a reward of some sort (external motivation) for doing something they would have done anyway just because they enjoy doing it (internal motivation).  This reward can be money, praise, bonus points. Essentially, an external incentive/reward is any type of reward that comes from outside the person.

Receiving a reward for a behavior that you find enjoyable anyway may not sound like a bad thing but it is.  Providing an external incentive to reward intrinsically motivated behaviors usually causes an individual to become less rather than more motivated to engage in that behavior.  This is the overjustification effect and, as you can see from reading the article, it is usually poorly understood by those without specific training in behavioral psychology.  For example, the author correctly states the following at the beginning of the article:

“Over the years, psychologists have determined that short-term rewards directed towards end results are not helpful in teaching children proper behavior and manners. In fact, bribes—whether they come in the form of money, play time, and/or candy—have a negative effect on children learning development.

Psychologist Edward Deci showed for his thesis that extrinsic rewards make people lose intrinsic interest in the activity itself. “

However, the author makes the following incorrect inference from this data:

“This should sound a little alarming because it implies that children won’t engage in activities unless there is a reward attached to it.

In the long term, this creates a “what’s in it for me” mentality, placing a stronger focus on competition than collaboration. Rewarding end results rather than the behavior itself is harmful to critical thinking development because it places an emphasis on a shortsighted win of receiving the reward instead of a holistic teaching of why the desired behavior is important anyway.”

This misunderstanding of the overjustification effect has the potential to lead to ineffective incentives and failed outcomes when used in gamification to motivate behavior.  Fortunately, a correct understanding of the misinformation effect and other behavioral phenomena can lead to extremely effective gamification strategies.To be most effective, rewards are best used to motivate behaviors that are not intrinsically rewarding.  The tricky part of this is that individuals differ in terms of the activities that they find intrinsically rewarding.  There are at least three ways that this problem can be addressed:

  1. Design for the masses by determining:
    1. The activities the majority of people find intrinsically reinforcing (don’t reward these behaviors)
    2. The types of rewards that most people find reinforcing (use these as your external reinforcement)
    3. The activities that the majority of people dislike doing (use the rewards to reinforce these behaviors)
  2. Design for each individual by determining A, B, and C above for each person whose behavior you are trying to change and using their intrinsically rewarding behaviors (A) to reinforce behaviors that are not intrinsically rewarding to them (B).
  3. Design your gamification strategy in such a way that it is possible to be intrinsically motivated to engage in the activities necessary to reach a desired outcome. Do this in such a way that any reward received for reaching the objective is seen as kind of an afterthought or supplement to the main activity.

Of course there are problems with each of these strategies. If you use the first strategy, you are going to lose the people who are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated in different ways than the majority of the population.  The second strategy is obviously labor intensive and, consequently, would not scale up well. The third strategy involves the difficult task of creating an environment in which a person is intrinsically motivated to meet the learning objectives. This can be achieved by giving the person a range of choices for reaching a desired objective. In education, this could involve allowing a student to complete an assignment on a topic of interest to them and/or in a format that they enjoy working in (audio, video, writing, etc.). The ideal scenario in this situation is that the activity itself is so intrinsically motivating that any reward received for engaging in that behavior is seen as supplemental to the enjoyment of the behavior itself.

According to research conducted by Amabile on the effects of extrinsic motivation on creativity, possible solutions to the problem of extrinsic motivation reducing intrinsically motivated behaviors are making sure:

  • the reward is seen as providing information about the competence and skill of intrinsically motivated behavior
  • the salience of the reward is low compared to the salience of the intrinsically motivated behavior (e.g., in video games, if taking down an opponent with a single shot is intrinsically rewarding enough, receiving small bonuses to skills for taking down an opponent with a single shot 10 times is just a nice little bonus for doing something enjoyable)
  • the reward is such that it is seen as enabling the intrinsically motivated behavior (e.g., receiving a weapon that facilitates critical hits to an opponent as a reward for dealing X number of critical hits to an opponent)

I apologize for the violence-based examples above. I’ve been playing Borderlands 2 a lot recently and these are the examples that came most readily to mind.

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