Overjustification Effect

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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.

[ ] Money isn’t everything. Money can’t buy happiness. Don’t live someone else’s dream. Figure out what you love and then figure out how to get paid doing it.

Aphorisms like these often find their way into your social media; they arrive in your electronic mailbox at the ends of dense chains of forwards. They bubble up from the collective sighs of well-paid boredom around the world and get routinely polished for presentation in graduation speeches and church sermons.

Money, fame, and prestige – they dangle just outside your reach it seems, encouraging you to lean farther and farther over the edge, to study longer and longer, to work harder and harder. When someone reminds you that acquiring currency while ignoring all else shouldn’t be your primary goal in life, it feels good. You retweet it. You post it on your wall. You forward it, and then you go back to work.

If only science had something concrete to say about the whole thing, you know? All these living greeting cards dispensing wisdom are great and all, but what about really putting money to the test? Does money buy happiness?

[ ]  The researchers discovered money is indeed a major factor in day-to-day happiness. No surprise there. You need to make a certain amount, on average, to be able to afford food, shelter, clothing, entertainment and the occasional Apple product, but what spun top hats around the country was their finding that beyond a certain point your happiness levels off. The happiness money offers doesn’t keep getting more and more potent – it plateaus. The research showed that a lack of money brings unhappiness, but an overabundance does not have the opposite effect.

According to the research, in modern America the average income required to be happy day-to-day, to experience “emotional well being” is about $75,000 a year. According to the researchers, past that point adding more to your income “does nothing for happiness, enjoyment, sadness, or stress.” A person who makes, on average, $250,000 a year has no greater emotional well-being, no extra day-to-day happiness, than a person making $75,000 a year. In Mississippi it is a bit less, in Chicago a bit more, but the point is there is evidence for the existence of a financiohappiness ceiling. The super-wealthy may believe they are happier, and you may agree, but you both share a delusion.

If you don’t already have it, money can improve your life and make you happier, but once you have enough to go to Red Lobster on Tuesday night without worrying about paying the water bill that month, you’re good to go. Or, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” In the modern United States the ability to let most things alone, according to Kahneman and Deaton’s research, costs about $75,000 a year.

[ ]  No matter how you turn it, the science says once your basic needs are taken care of, money and other rewards don’t make you happier, and you can appreciate why after examining a psychological jewel called the overjustification effect.

[ ]  Whether a reward is intrinsic or extrinsic helps determine the setting of your narrative – the marketplace or the heart. As Dan Ariely writes in his book, Predictably Irrational, you tend to unconsciously evaluate your behavior and that of others in terms of social norms or market norms. 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.

[ ]  In other words, 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.

[ ]  The results of the study suggested when you get rewarded based on how well you perform a task, as long as those reasons are made perfectly clear, rewards will generate that electric exuberance of intrinsic validation, and the higher the reward, the better the feeling and the more likely you will try harder in the future. On the other hand, if you are getting rewarded just for being a warm body, no matter how well you do your job, no matter what you achieve, the electric feeling is absent. In those conditions greater rewards don’t lead to more output, don’t encourage you to strive for greatness. Overall, the study suggested rewards don’t have motivational power unless they make you feel competent. Money alone doesn’t do that. With money, when you explain to yourself why you worked so hard, all you can come up with is, “to get paid.” You come to believe you are being coerced, paid off, bought out. In the absence of what the scientists called “competency feedback” there is no story to tell yourself that paints you as a badass. Quotas and overtime and hourly pay don’t offer such indications of competency. Bonuses based on a reaching a specific number of completions or reaching a quantified goal make you feel like a machine.

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.

Consider the story you tell yourself about why you do what you do for a living. How vulnerable is that tale to these effects?

Maybe your story goes like this: Work is just a means to an end. You go to work; you get paid. You exchange effort for survival tokens and the occasional steampunk thong from Etsy. Work is not fun. Work pays bills. Fun happens at places that are not work. Your story is in no danger if that’s how you see things. In an environment like that Skinner’s assumptions hold true, you will only work as hard as is necessary to keep getting paychecks. If offered greater rewards, you’ll work harder for them.

Maybe your story goes like this though: I love what I do. It changes lives. It makes the world a better place. I am slowly becoming a master in my field, and I get to choose how I solve problems. My bosses value my efforts, depend on me, and offer praise. In that scenario, rewards just get in the way of your job. As Kahneman’s and Deaton’s study about happiness showed, once you earn enough to be happy day-to-day, motivation must come from something else. As Kahneman and Deaton’s research into happiness and money showed, the only material reward worth seeking once you have a bed, running water and access to microwave popcorn, are tributes, symbols to all of your merit, stuff that demonstrates your effectance to yourself and others. Ranks, degrees, gold stars, trophies, Nobel Prizes and Academy Awards – these are shorthand indicators of your competence. Those rewards amplify your internal motivations; they build your self-esteem and strengthen your feelings of self-efficacy. They show you’ve leveled up in the real world. Achievement unlocked. They help you construct a personal narrative you enjoy telling.

The overjustification effect threatens your fragile narratives, especially if you haven’t figured out what to do with your life. You run the risk of seeing your behavior as motivated by profit instead of interest if you agree to get paid for something you would probably do for free. Conditioning will not only fail, it will pollute you. You run the risk of believing the reward, not your passion, was responsible for your effort, and in the future it will be a challenge to generate enthusiasm. It becomes more and more difficult to look back on your actions and describe them in terms of internal motivations. The thing you love can become drudgery if that which can’t be measured is transmuted into something you can plug into TurboTax.

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