How Rewards Can Make You Hate What You Love

How Rewards Can Make You Hate What You Love

Many people — including us — have argued that doing what you love and getting paid for it is the holy grail of life achievements, but in reality we tend to get discouraged when presented with the possibility that we’re only doing something for the money. Here’s why.

According to David McRaney, in his great blog on self-delusion You Are Not So Smart, people who are paid for something they love can kill their passion because they begin to wonder what’s motivating them to do the work. He points to a study about children who love to draw that are split up into three groups. One group is told they’ll be awarded with a certificate for their drawing, another group is surprised by that certificate when their drawings are completed, and a third group doesn’t get anything at all. While you might think the third group feels slighted, the study found that those children simply felt happy to have completed a task they enjoyed. The children who knew a reward was coming, however, were not quite so happy because they’d questioned their motivation:

As Lepper, Greene and Nisbett [the creators of the study] wrote, “engagement in an activity of initial interest under conditions that make salient to the person the instrumentality of engagement in that activity as a means to some ulterior end may lead to decrements in subsequent, intrinsic interest in the activity.” 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.

What’s most interesting, however, is that the children who received a reward as a surprise were happiest of all. They felt rewarded for their competence, not simply for completing a task. It’s these sorts of rewards that actually make us feel good about what we do rather than die a little inside every time we get a bonus based on our performance.

McRaney offers a look at a few other studies and plenty more examples, so be sure to read the full post for a complete look at how you find yourself intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to do something you love.

The Overjustification Effect [You Are Not So Smart]


  • They studied children – it only has a correlation to adults in the simplest of forms and would almost be ruled out if this came to a debate.

    It adult lives there a so many more emotions, feelings and pressures of life we must deal with. Otherwise known as VARIBLES. I feel these were blatantly ignored in this experiment which makes it useless when they try and relate it to adult working life.

    So while yes the children’s example points out the basic notion behind the theory it is NOT as widely the same in an adult world (as the article suggesting).

    We may love what we do in our occupation but being paid for it might be rewarding us in other ways, like;

    POSITIVE: Children/Family: better schooling and better house?
    NEGATIVE: Debt/Foreclosure: avoiding deadlines and late bills?

    As you can see in the children’s experiment – the reward they receive is directly from the work output but adults we find rewards well away from their work lifestyle…

    I just feel like this should have been included before a generalists point was made.

  • I agree. I think I may actually own this guy’s book too, it’s a great read.

    I used to love playing video games. Now I test video games, and playing games has started to bore me. Somewhat related I guess

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