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Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: “You complete me”

A now largely debunked controversy exists around the effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Essentially, one argument is in favour of the over-justification effect, where ‘external’ physical rewards like formal praise, money or even sweets have a diminishing effect on intrinsic motivation. The counter argument asserts that this is true only in certain contexts and that it can be mitigated easily.

As practitioners, when considering motivators for a gamified solution, we need to understand that this is indeed a healthy disagreement and we are not necessarily required to champion one theory or another. The controversy does however compel us to be mindful of the context, circumstances and nuances when providing rewards to motivate desirable behaviours in the gamified environment. Let’s consider the arguments.

The over-justification effect

This theory states that if you provide an external physical reward for behaviour that is already intrinsically motivated, you will not only diminish the intrinsic motivation but also, once the external motivators (rewards) stop coming, the intrinsic motivation does not return.

Take Facebook or similar social media platforms. The desire to regularly check your feed comes from within and is an intrinsic motivation – it does not require external rewards. The argument states that if you are rewarded to check your feed, your motivation will shift from the intrinsic “I want to see new information” to the extrinsic “I want my daily reward”. This focus does not shift back once the rewards are withdrawn and, theoretically, your desire to check your feed regularly will be greatly diminished.

Some studies go further and make the distinction that extrinsic rewards must be excessive to produce this over-justification effect but they all agree that this ‘dependency’ on rewards sabotages intrinsic motivation over time. But fortunately, time is on your side. Yes it is. Through monitoring your feedback mechanisms and with careful scrutiny, this effect – if observed – can be mitigated.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory

Opposing the over-justification effect is the Cognitive Evaluation Theory, which states that the data is all well and good when examined under laboratory conditions but the findings don’t hold up at all well in the real world. There is a distortion that comes into play because unlike laboratory experiments, in which subjects are randomly assigned to different experimental conditions, employees are not randomly distributed across companies. Employees sort themselves by choosing whom to work for and in which sphere of competence to operate. Further to this, it has been readily observed that we behave quite differently in an online, virtual, or gamified environment than we do in the ‘real world’.

(This next part is best read to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s Love and Marriage, the theme song from the TV series Married with Children. Cue music…)

It’s like love and marriage

Do extrinsic motivators, in the form of rewards, really negate intrinsic motivation as the over-justification effect theory states? It doesn’t particularly matter right now which school of thought you belong to, the point is that the application of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is not an either / or situation. It’s like love and marriage – they are not mutually exclusive. So in many a sense, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are exactly like love and marriage: they go together like a horse and carriage. This, I tell you brother …

…You can’t have one without the other

The classic example of extrinsic motivation, or reward-driven behaviour, is being paid to do your job. That’s the essence of the contract, a quid pro quo. The employee expects a regular monthly pay check and in return, the employer expects a certain level of performance. Simple enough. Now, if the employee has their sights set on a promotion and starts to perform over and above the employer’s day-to-day expectations that is the employee’s intrinsic motivation at work. Although there is a tangible reward (in the form of a raise and possibly perks) at the end of the day, it is the drive for personal growth and the desire to succeed that intrinsically motivates the employee’s behaviour. Try, try …

…Try to separate them, it’s an illusion

In the real world, extrinsic and intrinsic motivators work hand-in-hand. According to a report from WorldatWork, titled Negative effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation: More smoke than fire:

“It is notable that every major academic review of rewards research in the past 30 years has confirmed that monetary rewards increase performance significantly… In the real world, rewards motivate increased performance.” [My emphasis]

Thus, extrinsic motivation cannot be dispensed with for fear of it cancelling intrinsic motivation. From the same report we get that

“Total motivation is a function of external plus internal motivation, and extrinsic motivation cannot be ignored.”

Try and you will only come to this conclusion

The effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation depends largely on how the rewards are interpreted by the employee – this is a central tenet of Cognitive Evaluation Theory, which states that the needs for autonomy and competence underlie intrinsic motivation. Anything seen as wresting control or diminishing autonomy is a threat to intrinsic motivation. If the reward is associated with controlling behaviour – like the proverbial carrot and stick approach – intrinsic motivation will tend to decrease. However, if the reward is associated with a positive insight about increased competence, self-determination and control; intrinsic motivation may actually increase. It is important to note that social and emotional incentives, like formal praise and attention, given by another person are extrinsic motivators, which when overdone can once again produce a negative, diminishing effect.

As stated, total motivation is a function of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation combined, and that’s what we want: TOTAL motivation. Effectively applying motivators in a complementary fashion in a gamified environment is no mean feat and it requires expertise. It requires careful consideration and observation of the situation. It also requires the patience to allow a situation to develop organically, and regular examination of feedback to tweak performance and possibly mitigate potentially negative experiences.