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Latrell Sprewell + Pizza Hut < Intrinsic Motivation

When can rewards backfire?

Latrell Sprewell grew up in the inner-city of Milwaukee loving the game of basketball. For a number of reasons, he didn't play high school basketball until his senior season at Washington High School. Sprewell went on to star at the University of Alabama, before becoming an NBA All-Star. During his career, he earned nearly $100 million. As someone who had been paid millions of dollars to play a sport he loved, one would imagine Sprewell had the best of all worlds. Why then, in 2004, did Sprewell turn down $21 million dollars from the Minnesota Timberwolves to play basketball for three years? Sprewell created an uproar when he demanded $42 million, because he said, "I've got my family to feed." How did Sprewell get to a point that he was insulted by an offer of $21 million to play a sport he had grown up playing on a playground for no money, no praise, and no prestige, but simply the love of a game?

In my last post, I recounted a story of a former basketball player at the University of St. Thomas who needed a kick in the butt to exert effort on defense. In this week's post, I want to elaborate on how external incentives such as rewards can hurt motivation in those who are already interested in an activity.

Many of us recall taking part in a "Book-it" program in grade school. Typically, these programs provided a reward for reading a fixed number of books. I still recall a palpable buzz in my 3rd grade classroom when the rewards for reading were offered. Anyone who read 50 books would receive a free pizza at Pizza Hut.

At first glance, the program was already a success due to the excitement it generated. By the end of the school year, virtually every student had read fifty books. The program had worked! Or had it? Were students really more motivated to read? Did they simply choose short, easy books? Did they challenge themselves? Did they lie about how many books they read?

How do we measure the effectiveness of rewards? Typically, the goal of a reward is to guide, direct, and/or change behavior. Most educators would agree that their goal is not simply to get students to read inside a classroom. Rather, one of the true tests of whether a student has internalized a value such as reading is to measure whether or not they read during the summer, when school is out and students don't "have" to read.

In a classic study on the effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation, Mark Lepper and his colleagues at Stanford University asked young children to draw with magic markers. Drawing with the markers was an activity that all of the children in the study found interesting. One group of children was simply asked to draw with the markers and a second group was told that if they drew with the markers, they would get a "Good Player Award". Essentially, this was a certificate that they could hang up in their preschool classroom, something that would appeal to most preschool children.

Over the next four days, participants were monitored during free-choice periods at their preschool. When allowed to play with any toy of their choosing, who played with the magic markers? Their results seemed counterintuitive. The kids who would receive a reward played with the magic markers significantly less than those children who would not be rewarded. In fact, the kids who would not receive a reward played with the magic markers twice as much as those who would receive a reward.

Keep in mind, children in this study all started with a high level of interest for the markers, and they were randomly chosen to receive a reward or not. In other words, there was no difference between the two groups at the outset of the study.

How do we explain the decrease in interest for the children in the reward condition? It appears that children in this condition came to view the markers not as enjoyable but more as a means to an end. Once they received the reward, the markers held less appeal. This is known as the overjustification effect. Children who received the reward had too much justification for their behavior, and thus had to figure out if they were drawing with the markers because they wanted to draw or because they wanted a reward.

How does the overjustification effect apply to our daily lives? Are children affected by rewards? Consider the multitude of professional athletes such as Latrell Sprewell who grew up playing the sport of their choosing for free, often braving harsh heat or cold to shoot baskets, hit, kick, and catch balls, or play football, all because they loved their sport. My hunch is that Latrell Sprewell never took a social psychology course so he wasn't about to admit, "After years of playing for the love of the sport, I've fallen prey to the overjustification effect. My intrinsic motivation is gone and I want the biggest external incentive I can get. In fact, I won't even play a game I grew up loving unless it's for the right amount of money."

(As an aside, after his demand for $42 million for three years was rejected, Latrell Sprewell never again played in the NBA, and recently filed for bankruptcy. Maybe he wasn't lying about his financial hardship. Even so, it would appear the $21 million would have come in handy at the time of his bankruptcy proceedings.)

Contrast the effects of these rewards with those described in last week's post, where we read about Billy who responded favorably to an external incentive. Billy needed a kick in the butt. However, a reward for simply taking part in an activity for those individuals who are already interested in what they're doing can backfire, leading us to wonder whether those Book-it programs were positive for kids who already enjoyed reading. It seems possible that these rewards undermined intrinsic motivation for those who were already interested in reading, not to mention the fact that it doesn't seem like a great idea to be rewarding a healthy behavior (reading) with a not-so-healthy reward (eating greasy pizza).

In sum, rewards (and other external incentives) are complex in the ways that they affect motivation. We ought to be particularly cautious about rewarding people for doing what they love to do, lest we find more cases like Latrell Sprewell who won't play basketball for millions of dollars, and millions of other children who may not want to read unless they get an free pizza for doing so.

Just this past weekend, a former player (let's call him Mike) I coached at St. Thomas played in a tournament with one of his boyhood friends (Alex). Alex played at a Division I school and now plays basketball professionally. He gave a lackluster effort all weekend. At the end of the tournament, Mike asked Alex why he didn't play harder. Alex responded, "Mike, when you pay me to play, I'll try harder. I only play for money these days." How sad that an activity Alex had loved since his childhood had become such a chore that he required money to play, in part due to the fact that he now earned a living playing basketball. My former player Mike was both perplexed and frustrated with Alex's lack of effort.

This week we examined task-contingent rewards (rewards for simply taking part in an activity) and found negative effects on motivation. Next week, we'll discuss rewards that are earned for attaining a high level of performance (performance-contingent rewards) to examine whether all rewards have the same types of motivational effects.


Lepper, M. P., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.