An Anecdote About The Overjustification Effect and Exercise

Watch out for the Overjustification Effect when establishing a gamified learning system. As noted in a previous blog, if you use points, badges, etc., you ought to sustain their use during a gamified approach for assessments and grading. Otherwise the Overjustification Effect main undermine your system.


I’ve experienced the Overjustification Effect myself – but not as an instructional designer. Not as a learner either. Actually, I was a customer of a gym that uses gamification to reward exercise.


A couple years ago, I was convinced by my then-girlfriend (now-fiance) to attend a workout session at Orange Theory Fitness. I didn’t know what to expect.


Orange Theory Fitness is a group-fitness gym that uses High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to help its members attain their goals. HIIT is a type of cardiovascular exercise that alternates short periods of aerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods. Each Orange Theory session typically consists of an hour of running/power-walking on treadmills, rowing, and weight lifting, in a group rotation.


One of the major selling points of Orange Theory, and the crux of its gamified systems, is its heart rate monitors. During your trainer-led workout, you’re strapped with a heart rate monitor on your chest or wrist.


Your heart rate is displayed on monitors around the gym, highlighting your heart rate “zones.” The zones are color coded to indicate the increase in your resting heart rate: gray (+ 50-60% resting heart rate), blue (+ 60-70%), green (+ 70%-80%), orange (+ 80-90%), and red (+ 90-100%). Your target zones for the workout are green and orange, and the monitor tracks how many minutes you spend within each of these zones.


Ideally, you want to reach the orange zone for 12 to 22 minutes per hour class. According to the science behind Orange Theory, this range stimulates your metabolism to achieve what is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which results in 200 to 400 calories increase in metabolism post-workout.


The gamification aspect of Orange Theory surrounds the 12 to 22 minutes of oranges zone EPOC. On the monitor, your orange zone minutes are specifically tallied as “splat points.” At the end of class, the number of splat points you completed displays next to your name. Seeing your splat point numbers is gratifying and motivating if you hit 12 or over.


After a few sessions, I was hooked on Orange Theory’s style of exercise. I became a member. As every session ended, I would check my splat points to see how long I spent in the coveted orange zone, and evaluate if I was achieving the EPOC! 


For the first few months, I found it easy to earn 12-22 splat points. I counted on it. But the more I exercised, the better shape I was in, and the stronger my heart became. In less than a year, I wouldn’t always hit 12 minutes in the orange zone, even when I felt like I was pushing my hardest. Though I’m sure there are physiological explanations for not always getting the ideal splat points (fatigue maybe), every hour not getting the EPOC felt like a waste. Why try, I thought, if I don’t get 12 points?


Before defining the Overjustification Effect and how it can manifest in gamification and Orange Theory, first it’s essential to define the two types of motivation at play in overjustification. People respond to two types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation derives from external incentives, like money, or status. People are motivated to perform tasks (like their jobs) by their paychecks, or by the entitlement they feel they deserve. Intrinsic motivation comes from people’s internal enjoyment and gratification to perform a task - without promise of reward. People may paint, play an instrument, or play a sport just for the love of it.


The Overjustification Effect occurs when an expected external incentive decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. This can occur in gamification when rewarding points, badges, etc. can actually de-motivate the audience. An example of the Overjustification Effect was created in a study in 1973 when children who enjoyed drawing were separated into three groups, each differently rewarded for drawing. 


The first group was told they would be rewarded a certificate, and were rewarded the certificate after they drew. The second group was not told they would be rewarded, but were rewarded anyway. Finally, the third group was not rewarded at all. The children were observed and rewarded/not rewarded for three days. 


Two weeks later, the children were grouped the same. This time, none of the children were rewarded for drawing. The second and third groups continued to enjoy drawing. The first group, who was initially told they would be rewarded, and then were rewarded, were no longer motivated to draw. The Overjustification Effect had diminished they’re intrinsic satisfaction of drawing.


This can apply to gamification when people are rewarded points and badges for performing tasks, but then are no longer motivated to do so when points and badges are no longer rewarded. The Overjustification Effect can sabotage motivation in a gamified setting, for example, as it did in my experience at Orange Theory.


Overjustification made me think a workout was useless unless I earned certain splat points, when truly any type of activity is healthy. But I didn’t want to quit Orange Theory. It’s variety and guidance in its workouts were so appealing. 


Instead, I decided to stop wearing the heart rate monitor, and stop caring about zones or splat points. Rather than rely on the external incentives for validation and gratification, I’d try my best in each class, and depend on the intrinsic motivation to feel good about myself.


Now usually gamification strategies are enacted to motivate people extrinsically because they lack the intrinsic motivation. Nevertheless, it is important to consider how the Overjustification Effect may interfere with the gamified experience. Analyze how the audience may lose motivation when rewards are taken away. If there is not gold at the end of the rainbow, what make it worth finding the end of the rainbow?