The Secret Cost of Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Self-Perception Theory and the Overjustification Effect

A few months ago, the man behind the invaluable You Are Not So Smart blog, […]

David Zahl / 3.12.12

A few months ago, the man behind the invaluable You Are Not So Smart blog, David McRaney, put out a book of the same name (actually, the full title is You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself) compiling and expanding upon his site. McRaney is a self-described psychology nerd with a special interest in what can only be called fallibility. So the book is pretty much a layman’s index of the psychology of human error, bias, delusion, defense, etc. It’s great. In December, McRaney put up an entry that didn’t make it into the final volume, his take on “The Overjustification Effect.” Suffice it to say, it’s a neutron bomb of relevant material, providing hard data on how the Law (i.e. reward-punishment, if-then compensation schema) poisons creative endeavors.  And certainly the same lessons could be translated into the religious realm. When works become a matter of righteousness, in other words (and they almost always do), the works themselves suffer, as do the people doing them. I know how laborious it can be to read through explanations of experiments, but the one below is worth your time/energy.

The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.

The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

In 1973, [researchers] met with teachers of a preschool class, the sort that generates a steady output of macaroni art and paper-bag vests. They arranged for the children to have a period of free time in which the tots could choose from a variety of different fun activities. Meanwhile, the psychologists would watch from behind a one-way mirror and take notes. The teachers agreed, and the psychologists watched. To proceed, they needed children with a natural affinity for art. So as the kids played, the scientists searched for the ones who gravitated toward drawing and coloring activities. Once they identified the artists of the group, the scientists watched them during free time and measured their participation and interest in drawing for later comparison.

They then divided the children into three groups. They offered Group A a glittering certificate of awesomeness if the artists drew during the next fun time. They offered Group B nothing, but if the kids in Group B happened to draw they received an unexpected certificate of awesomeness identical to the one received by Group A. The experimenters told Group C nothing ahead of time, and later the scientists didn’t award a prize if those children went for the colored pencils and markers. The scientists then watched to see how the kids performed during a series of playtimes over three days. They awarded the prizes, stopped observations, and waited two weeks. When they returned, the researchers watched as the children faced the same the choice as before the experiment began. Three groups, three experiences, many fun activities – how do you think their feelings changed?

Well, Group B and Group C didn’t change at all. They went to the art supplies and created monsters and mountains and houses with curly-cue smoke streams crawling out of rectangular chimneys with just as much joy as they had before they met the psychologists. Group A, though, did not. They were different people now. The children in Group A “spent significantly less time” drawing than did the others, and they “showed a significant decrease in interest in the activity” as compared to before the experiment. Why?

The children in Group A were swept up, overpowered, their joy perverted by the overjustification effect. The story they told themselves wasn’t the same story the other groups were telling. That’s how the effect works.

Self-perception theory says you observe your own behavior and then, after the fact, make up a story to explain it. That story is sometimes close to the truth, and sometimes it is just something nice that makes you feel better about being a person. For instance, researchers at Stanford University once divided students into two groups. One received a small cash payment for turning wooden knobs round and round for an hour. The other group received a generous payment for the same task. After the hour, a researcher asked students in each group to tell the next person after them who was about to perform the same boring task that turning knobs was fun and interesting. After that, everyone filled out a survey in which they were asked to say how they truly felt. The people paid a pittance reported the study was a blast. The people paid well reported it was awful. Subjects in both groups lied to the person after them, but the people paid well had a justification, an extrinsic reward to fall back on. The other group had no safety net, no outside justification, so they invented one inside. To keep from feeling icky, they found solace in an internal justification – they thought, “you know, it really was fun when you think about.” That’s called the insufficient justification effect, the yang to overjustification’s yin. In telling themselves the story, the only difference was the size of the reward and whether or not they felt extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. You are driven at the fundamental level in most everything you choose to do by either intrinsic or extrinsic goals.

Helping a friend move for free doesn’t feel the same as helping a friend move for $50. It feels wonderful to slip into the same bed with your date after getting to know them and staying up one night making key lime cupcakes and talking about the differences and similarities between Breaking Bad and The Wire, but if after all of that the other person tosses you a $100 bill and says, “Thanks, that was awesome,” you will feel crushed by the terrible weight of market norms. Payments in terms of social norms are intrinsic, and thus your narrative remains impervious to the overjustification effect. Those sorts of payments come as praise and respect, a feeling of mastery or camaraderie or love. Payments in terms of market norms are extrinsic, and your story becomes vulnerable to overjustification. Marketplace payments come as something measurable, and in turn they make your motivation measurable when before it was nebulous, up for interpretation and easy to rationalize.

[Ed. note: Is it me or did he just draw a parallel to prostitution? Een-teresting…]

The deal the children struck with the experimenters ruined their love of art during playtime, not because they received a reward. After all, Group B got the same reward and kept their desire to draw. No, it wasn’t the prize but the story they told themselves about why they chose what they chose, why they did what they did. During the experiment, Group C thought, “I just drew this picture because I love to draw!” Group B thought, “I just got rewarded for doing something I love to do!” Group A thought, “I just drew this to win an award!” When all three groups were faced with the same activity, Group A was faced with a metacognition, a question, a burden unknown to the other groups. The scientists in the knob-turning study and the child artists study showed Skinner’s view was too narrow. Thinking about thinking changes things. Extrinsic rewards can steal your narrative.

…if you are offered a reward to do something you love and then agree, you will later question whether you continue to do it for love or for the reward.

If you pay people to complete puzzles instead of paying them for being smart, they lose interest in the game. If you pay children to draw, fun becomes work. Payment on top of compliments and other praise and feeling good about personal achievement are powerful motivators, but only if they are unexpected. Only then can you continue to tell the story that keeps you going; only then can you still explain your motivation as coming from within.


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8 responses to “The Secret Cost of Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Self-Perception Theory and the Overjustification Effect”

  1. Randy says:

    That’s a very interesting & intriguing article. I’d like your thoughts on how that would practically express itself. If we do work we love and get paid well for it, and then it has the effect of making us love the work less, what are the alternatives? Do the work and get paid less than well or only sporadically for it? Intentionally do work we don’t love so that we don’t lose the love we have, and then use our non-work time to do what we love and not get paid for it? What do you think?

    • David Zahl says:

      Those are great questions, and to be honest, I have no idea! It might be a classic description vs. prescription situation. That is, these studies can help explain why we’ve found ourselves less excited about things once we start getting paid for them, but to extrapolate an upfront ‘should’ might be counterproductive. At least in my life, the relationship between motivation and reward has been pretty fluid anyway, and not really something I’ve had much success in predicting or maintaining.

      That said, I don’t think it’s ever a bad idea to do something with your time/energy that you love, whether you get paid for it or not (mockingbird being a case in point in my life). In fact, the question of whether the ‘job’ is something you would do if you didn’t get paid for it, is probably a good one to ask.

      Yet it also seems to be the case that, where the heart is involved, extrinsic rewards (like money) do seem to complicate things, as countless episodes of Behind the Music (and churchplanting experiments) would attest. Intrinsic rewards, too – credit, praise and so forth – can have the same effect, albeit a little less pronounced/immediate. The sad truth is, the Law in any of its forms will bring a person to a point of exhaustion or resentment eventually – and that includes metacognitive forms like “how should I think about this?”

      So I really don’t know. If you pushed me, I’d probably say that compensation and passion don’t always or necessarily have to come into conflict, but when they do, passion is probably the way to err. Not that these areas are ever ruled by rational decision-making…

      Somerset Maugham had something wonderful to say on the issue in The Painted Veil:

      And Todd’s post on Tyndale that I put in the slider this week touches on the same issue, from a more vertical perspective:

      How would you answer those questions?

      • Randy says:

        I think that if we have the opportunity to do work we love and get paid well for it, then we should. The alternative is to spend the time when we work to get paid (which is usually more than 1/3 of our waking life) doing something that we don’t love or even necessarily enjoy–which often means we don’t do it well, get frustrated easily, and area emotionally drained. Then we have to try to squeeze in the things we do love, which I find are also usually the things we are best at and that God has gifted us to do.

        I completely agree that the question of whether your “job” is something you’d do whether you get paid for it or not is a good one to ask. It seems to me that the expectation of the world is that you should hate your job, and the expectation within much of the church is that it is unspiritual or even ungodly to enjoy your job. That is something that I completely disagree with, and I have yet to see anyone present a compelling rationale behind why that should be the case.

        For some people, their passion may not be something that they can get paid for, and that’s fine. But I think when you can get paid for it, it’s wise to pursue that. I see it as the best stewardship of the resources God has given me.

  2. Liz says:

    This statement caught my eye: If you pay people to complete puzzles instead of paying them for being smart, they lose interest in the game. I am someone who is in the flow, working in the sweet spot of work that feels more like fun. You articulated a sinister something that rolls around in the back of my mind, that I wonder about.

    I suspect I am paid much less than others with similar corp responsibilities but because I feel blessed to do this work {thankful to God for these talents}, I try to look the other way about the money because we have what we need with things as they are. It simply feels wrong to complain and say “this {all of this} is not enough.” Would I do this work for free? Yes, because these creative ideas must have to have an outlet … until God gives me something else to work on or work with … and when you resign that He is in control, things seem as they should be. My two cents.

    On another note, I am hoping to attend the conference next month! Blessings ~

  3. S. says:

    There’s something fundamentally legalistic about remuneration – hold up your end of the bargain, and get compensated accordingly. The expectation is that one perform for the extrinsic reward, and all proceeds justly and fairly. This obviously flies in the face of our broken nature and exposes our shortcomings vis a vis that extrinsically set standard. Perhaps I’m not saying anything new, but I thought it might be worth sharing. I am grappling with these very issues at this very moment; thanks for posting.

    • david babikow says:

      “There’s something fundamentally legalistic about remuneration – hold up your end of the bargain, and get compensated accordingly.”
      S. it does need to be repeated. Thank you.
      As an employer I do not know what is going on intrinsically. My judgments are based on what I observe on the outside. This is what I have seen. Incentive pay does not work. Bonuses are too often – give me more. Pay raises often place the person in the pressure of higher expectations and guilt. The burden here is the “standard” that you speak of and the “form of law” that DZ mentioned.
      You can love your job without ever looking at the clock; but at some point the voice of the “boken nature” will speak.

  4. mark mcculley says:

    Nietzsche and Derrida–we always want to get paid.

    Lay up for YOURSELVES treasures in heaven.

    You reap what you sow.

    Can God give a gift without us being obligated to thank God for it?

    Even when we say “Christ is the reward”, we are still not Kantians. We still want to have Christ.

    If we are given much, and then we turn around and don’t even give a little, does this mean that the one who gave to us might just come and take back the gift to us?

  5. Pfur says:

    I’d say a lot of it has to do with the fruits of our labor. When money gets involved, the part of the narrative that gets changed is the definition of value. Work in, money out. vs. Work in, value out. Human as animal is efficient in that they won’t do work where they don’t see a return in value. To move would mean there is something to move toward, or an ache of boredom or muscle to relieve. To farm would be for food. To dance would be for ritual and or celebration. To talk and argue would be to satisfy curiosity or create bonds. To trade would be to get that thing you need and can use directly. Of course, money is just a temporary placeholder for all these values that you could receive in return for your work, but that one extra layer of abstraction trips us into seeing its lack of inherent value. For specific goods, it is counterproductive to hoard. Money makes it easier to save the credits for our work and the goal for saving is never ending and the practice of saving is to imagine terrible contingencies, in other words to imagine future dangers in your life and work towards a preventative, defensive lifestyle of catching up to something yet to happen. Old age, retirement, house buying, debt free, childrens’ weddings, car accident, medical bills, etc.
    Whereas systems like barter encourage the engagement of the present and defines values in terms of immediate needs of immediate people. Nothing motivates us quite like the things we can see and feel.

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