Incentives considered harmful

Added 2023-01-14

Incentives, commitment devices, and accountability, are all actively harmful when they replace intrinsic motivation due to the overjustification effect

This essay was written using ChatGPT, see the conversation here.

Have you ever found yourself feeling unmotivated to accomplish a task, even though it's something you truly want to do? Or maybe you've found yourself completing a task only because you'll receive a reward or avoid a punishment. This is the power of external motivation and the overjustification effect.

External motivation is the use of rewards or punishments to motivate an individual to achieve a specific goal. It may seem effective in the short term, but it can ultimately be harmful in the long run. The overjustification effect is a phenomenon that occurs when an individual's internal motivation for a task is replaced by an external reward or punishment. This can lead to a decrease in the individual's intrinsic motivation for the task, as they begin to view the task as something that they are only doing for the reward or to avoid the punishment.

For example, do you think that Elon Musk works 80 hours a week because of an accountability partner? Of course not! He's driven by a deep passion for innovation and making a positive impact on the world. Similarly, do Buddhist monks meditate because of a Beeminder commitment? No way! They do it because it brings them inner peace and a deeper understanding of themselves.

Another example is children in school, who may have a love of learning1 replaced by a desire to do well on tests. They may begin to see learning as a means to an end, rather than an enjoyable experience. This can lead to a decrease in their intrinsic motivation to learn, and a greater focus on external rewards such as good grades.

It's important to note that external motivation can be used in a healthy way, by paying close attention to why you're doing something, and being willing to stop using external devices if you find your reason shifting from the intrinsic reason to the extrinsic one. When we operate primarily on intrinsic motivation, the task becomes the reward in itself, rather than relying on external rewards or punishments.

So, the next time you're feeling unmotivated, take a step back and ask yourself, "Why am I doing this? Is it because I truly care about it, or is it because of an external reward or punishment?" The answer will guide you to operate on intrinsic motivation, the key to long-term success.


  1. Unrelated but I also recommend the Supermemo genius checklist