Why The Overjustification Effect Is The Catch-22 Of Gamification

Have you ever heard of it? The Overjustification Effect? It’s real. Why? Because it is on Wikipedia. The first sentence goes like this: “The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task.” (emphasis added) This is off course very relevant to the topic of gamification or serious gaming, since a lot of its value comes from raising motivation to perform certain tasks (the other big moat of value coming from actually learning or aquiring a skill better and faster).

Now this raises two important questions:

  1. When does the overjustification effect take place?
  2. What happens to the gamified environment when it stirs its ugly head?

Let’s tackle them in reverse order.

A Guy Named Bob

A Guy Named Bob

Let’s assume A Guy Named Bob. This Guy Named Bob is an employee of a company that sells camera’s online and this company creates a leaderboard for its sales people. A monthly bonus is awarded for the number 1 spot. At first This Guy Named Bob is motivated to become first and he starts to perform well. He gets to the number 1 spot and receives his bonus. He wants more! After a few months, The Guy Named Bob has learned a thing or two about how the leaderboard is made up and he starts adjusting his behavior (his sales techniques) in such a way that he will perform even better on the leaderboard. He stays on top and receives his bonus. The Guy Named Bob is suddenly The Sales-King Named Bob and he loves his new status. And he won’t let go… After three months he discoveres a small loophole in the leaderboard system: the reward for selling a certain lens filter is a lot higher than for other accessories and he only has to sell a few of those to rise to the top in month four. His real results start to go down, but he stays on top of the leaderboard. The gamified environment of the company has become ineffective, even detrimental to the companies revenues. Gamification #fail.

So the Overjustification Effect corrupts any gamified environment to the extent of making it harmful to the organization applying gamification. With that covered, we move to question 1: when does this happen? The answer to this may be quite shocking and it is the reason I think this phenomenon is really the greatest danger to any process of gamification. The answer is: it happens all the time, in every gamified environment! Why? Because it is how the human psyche works! Now there’s a Catch-22… The gamifier is motivating people to perform tasks and in doing so is deminishing the intrinsic motivation to perform this task.

If someone is rewarded for a task that was not rewarded before, an external motivator is layed on top of the intrinsic motivation (which must have been there if the task was performed before, right?). Now the mind of the person performing the task (A Guy Named Bob, for example) focusses on the external reward and it replaces(!) the intrinsic motivation. When the external reward is taken away, the intrinsic motivation is gone. You see the danger? You see the challenge? You see the Catch-22? You should if you want to implement any gamified process in any organization, because staying out of this Catch 22-loophole is the ongoing challenge for gamification and serious gaming.Carrot

Any gamified process is subject to erosion. People learn, people adjust, adopt and adapt. We are already seeing that badges and leaderboards are not as effective as they were in the “early days” of gamification. A gamifier needs to be one step ahead of this learning curve, he needs to keep the fine balance between external incentives and intrinsic motivation. This is not easy and it requires constant observation of the results and processes and a corresponding adjustment and refining of the gamification processes and techniques.

How to stay ahead of the learning curve? Two important pointers:

  1. Always be on the lookout for loopholes and other flaws in your process.
  2. Keep changing the game for the best players to keep them guessing and on their toes.

If you don’t do all this, then the Overjustification Effect might just pop up and rip the pretty little head off of your gamified process…


You have been warned…

I think this is a quite serious challenge for the world of gamification. How do you see this? Am I making too much of this, or is it a threat to gamification in the long run? I’m looking forward to an open discussion on the subject!



5 thoughts on “Why The Overjustification Effect Is The Catch-22 Of Gamification

  1. Interesting article, but I disagree with your definition of overjustification in the Bob example. In my opinion it’s more like a kid who loves to play piano. The kid is then pushed into all sorts of contests by the parents and thus it gets constant rewards. After the parents pull the kid from the contests the external rewards disappear, and since they’ve completely taken over the intrinsic motivation the kid stops playing.

    In your example Bob doesn’t stop selling; he just sells the only things that get him gamification rewards. So yeah, it is a gamification #fail, but not completely due to overjustification, but through a loophole in the gamification system.

    Just my two cents ;).


    • Hi Michiel,
      Thanks for your well-informed response!
      You are right off course, though you can imagine that Bob will feel some lack of motivation when the failed gamification attempt gets shelved again… The loophole is the hook for Bob’s overjustification, that’s basically how I see it. And the gamifier’s job is to prevent or close such loopholes, so the overjustification can’t become manifest but remains the potentiality that it always is.
      Thanks for rearranging my thoughts!

  2. Hi,
    Interesting indeed! Actually, teaching struggles with the same problem. But perhaps the key resides in how rewards are designed. In your example, and in other examples I can think off, the rewards are always external: money, points, status improvement. But humans need different rewards. Social connectedness, feeling productive or earning the opportunity to do satisfying work (On that point, I am a big fan of J. McGonigall’s book). I suppose one never gets tired of such rewards, as they are intrinsic. So how about a gamification example where people were rewarded with things they crave for intrinsically… do you think the overjustification monster would still strike?

    • Hi Pomontiglio,
      Thanks for taking time to comment.

      There is quite some overlap between teaching issues and issues connected with serious gaming and I think you are quite right about this one in the sense that good gamification design supports intrinsic motivation. It can never replace it though and this is the issue. In The Guy Named Bob’s example, the first place on the leaderboard (external reward) supports the intrinsic motivations to get approval, to belong, to feel productive and maybe others. The overjustification effect results in the intrinsic motivation being deminished, even when the reward stops. So Bob corrupts the gamified system and then falls back to a state below that where he was before the system existed.

      I think any reward that is given as a result of a certain achievement is external by nature. Intrinsic rewards come from within.

      Game design is a lot like storytelling. And when we hear a story, we must be willing to believe in the story to a certain degree (suspension of disbelief) in order to be moved by it. Also in the gamified process do we need a suspension of disbelief. In a sense we need to believe that any reward is given to us spontaneously, like a happy coincedence – like serendipity. The more a game succeeds in giving us this serendipitous feeling, the more likely we are to be enthralled. But remember: it is still only a story, trying to stir something up that must already be potentially present in the gamers pshyche.
      So to answer your question: yes, no matter how valuable the reward, if the game does not eveolve with its players, it will get stale, it will be corrupted, it will run its course and the overjustification effect will once again bring chaos and disorder to our lovely little gamified garden…

      (btw: I am forming thoughts as I write, don’t hink I have it all figured out. Please keep digging for loopholes in our stories and let’s get them straight!)

  3. Pingback: Can Games Teach Us How To Live? | ChielReemer.nl


Vul je gegevens in of klik op een icoon om in te loggen.

WordPress.com logo

Je reageert onder je WordPress.com account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )

Google+ photo

Je reageert onder je Google+ account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )


Je reageert onder je Twitter account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )

Facebook foto

Je reageert onder je Facebook account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )


Verbinden met %s