The Overjustification Effect

3min read

I learned to code sometime in 2011. I started getting paid to code in 2016.

What started out as a passion turned into a job. This sometimes leads to what’s called the overjustification effect.

The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. Overjustification is an explanation for the phenomenon known as motivational “crowding out”. The overall effect of offering a reward for a previously unrewarded activity is a shift to extrinsic motivation and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation. Once rewards are no longer offered, interest in the activity is lost; prior intrinsic motivation does not return, and extrinsic rewards must be continuously offered as motivation to sustain the activity.1

Despite being paid to write code for the past several years now, I’m still in love with it.

Although my relationship to my passion has changed over time. I work full-time as a software engineer and so at the end of the day I’m, usually, “all coded out”.

That’s not always the case though. In the past few months, I’ve worked on a mod for the criminally underappreciated game Pig Eat Ball, a Discord bot to help some friends and I play the tabletop RPG Everyone Is John and a little web app to explore and share Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

These projects were all small in scope and so I was able to sneak them into my schedule.

These past few years, I noticed that I’ve spent a lot of my free time working on creative projects purely for my own enjoyment.

I write about video games on this blog (worth nothing) and I work on little programming projects for fun (worth nothing to anyone but me).

I wonder if I’m subconsciously going out of my way to work on projects that have no value to anyone but myself because I don’t want to be put in a situation where I’m paid for any of this.

If I start getting paid for my creative output, maybe I’ll stop having as much fun creating it?

“Wasting” my time on creative projects that have no value is a luxury I can afford. My skills as a software engineer are highly sought after and so I’m paid well for the work I do during the day.

I live a life of privilege and I hope I can continue having fun creating unsellable stuff until the day they unceremoniously shove me into the dirt.

  1. Carlson, R.Neil & Heth, C. Donald (2007). Psychology the Science of Behaviour. Pearson Education:New Jersey. ↩︎

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