Current Status of the Undermining Effect

On the face of it, the idea that rewards reduce people's interest in activities that they enjoy seems to contradict common sense and observation. After all, many people get paid for work that they enjoy and continue to work hard even though they receive paychecks. Research since the 1970s has produced mixed findings, and many studies have reported no decrease in interest after people got rewards for performing enjoyable activities (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Dickinson, 1989; Flora, 1990). The undermining effects of rewards seem to occur only under limited conditions (Eisen-berger & Cameron, 1996; but see also Lepper, Keavney, & Drake, 1996; Ryan & Deci, 1996). Rewards sometimes undermine motivation under three conditions:

1. High initial interest. Rewards can undermine very high interest but enhance motivation when there is less initial interest (Calder & Staw, 1975; Sarafino & DiMattia, 1978).

2. Tangible and salient rewards. Tangible rewards, such as candy or money, sometimes undermine interest in a task, especially if the reward is salient, such as when a child focuses attention on it (Sarafino, 1984). However, praise as a reward usually enhances motivation for the task (Dollinger & Thelen, 1978; Eisen-berger & Cameron, 1996).

3. The norm is for no reward. If a person believes that people are not normally given a reward for the activity, being given a reward can undermine interest. If the person believes it is normal and appropriate to receive a reward for the activity, however, the reward increases motivation (Staw, Calder, Hess, & Sandelands, 1980).

Finally, when reduced interest does occur, these decrements are usually minor, transient if the person continues to perform the task following the reward, and unlikely at all if performance meets or exceeds stated standards or receives repeated rewards (Dickinson, 1989; Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). Thus it appears that rewards can undermine people's interest in enjoyable activities under limited conditions, but the likelihood, strength, and durability of these effects are slight.


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Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1996). When paradigms clash: Comments on Cameron and Pierce's claim that rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation. Review of Educational Research, 66, 33-38.

Sarafino, E. P. (1984). Intrinsic motivation and delay of gratification in preschoolers: The variables of reward salience and length of expected delay. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1, 149-156. Sarafino, E. P. (1996). Principles of behavior change: Understanding behavior modification techniques. New York: Wiley. Sarafino, E. P., & DiMattia, P. A. (1978). Does grading undermine intrinsic interest in a college course? Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 916-921.

Staw, B. M., Calder, B. J., Hess, R. K., & Sandelands, L. E. (1980). Intrinsic motivation and norms about payment. Journal of Personality, 48, 1-14.

Edward P. Sarafino The College of New Jersey

See also: Intrinsic Motivation; Motivation; Reinforcement

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