On Motivation

In Japanese, Ikigai means “reason for being” and combines four pillars of motivation toward completing a task into one cohesive entity. Those four pillars are: 1) being good at the task, 2) intrinsic enjoyment of the task, 3) the task has a positive effect on others, 4) the task is lucrative. The closest Western interpretation of Ikigai is the prospect of being paid to do what you love. As enticing as that sounds, research dating back to the early 1970s suggests that it may lead to adverse effects, and in some cases, it can actually be the quickest way to kill a hobby. The idea that external rewards, such as money or prizes, would increase an individual’s motivation to engage in a task is rooted in the rationalization that individuals choose to engage in activities that offer the most significant reward. The logic holds true insofar as it remains in the realm of the external, but when attempted to be used in conjunction with intrinsic motivation, a capstone study found external rewards to have a negative correlation to one’s inherent enjoyment or satisfaction on a task or set of activities.

Lepper et al. (1973) studied the effects of 51 preschool children aged three to five years, who were presented with an opportunity to play with markers and drawing paper, an activity in which all subjects had vocalized intrinsic enjoyment. The children were then divided into groups of three: G1 received an expected reward for drawing, G2 received a surprise reward for drawing, and G3 received no reward for drawing. The group that received no reward continued to enjoy drawing the most, while the group that received an expected reward showed a significant decrease in their intrinsic motivation to draw. The group that received a surprise reward did not show a decrease in intrinsic motivation compared to the no-reward group. The lasting effects were measured—children who received an expected reward for drawing spent less time drawing during a free play period compared to the other two groups, suggesting permanence in developing disinterest in the task. This research demonstrates that offering extrinsic rewards for activities that children already enjoy can decrease their intrinsic motivation to engage in those activities. This can have long-term consequences, as intrinsic motivation is crucial for learning and personal growth.

Workman & Williams (1980) investigated whether the negative effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation could be reversed by offering an explanation for the reward. Their study involved 60 college students tasked with completing a puzzle, all of whom were given a questionnaire to assess their intrinsic motivation before and after the task. Subjects were randomly assigned into groups of four: G1 received no reward for a task, G2 received an unexpected reward, G3 received an expected reward with no explanation, and G4 received an expected reward with an explanation. The group that received no reward had the highest level of intrinsic motivation to complete the puzzle, followed by the group that received an expected reward with an explanation. The groups that received an unexpected reward or an expected reward with no explanation had lower levels of intrinsic motivation than the no-reward group. This suggests that while removing extrinsic motivation entirely is still the most effective method of maintaining intrinsic motivation, offering an explanation for an extrinsic reward can help to mitigate its negative effects. It also suggests that these behaviors are reflected in adults as well as children. These findings extended the implications to employers and managers over just educators and parents. Providing explanations for external reward can help employees understand the significance of the task and the reward, which can lead to increased intrinsic motivation.

Caution should be taken when considering extrinsic rewards as a motivator, and perhaps only implemented in situations with pre-existing low intrinsic motivation. In cases of high intrinsic motivation, a focus should instead be placed on fostering one’s opportunity for growth and development by providing outlets for autonomy, mastery, and relatedness. Increasing the reward has been proven to yield counterintuitive effects, rather than further incentivizing the individual to perform a task they already love. Sometimes hobbies should stay hobbies, and work should stay work. The idea that life can be all roses with no thorns is a fallacy, and the experience of duality leads to more substantial feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment.


  1. Lepper, M. R., 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(1), 129–137.

  2. Workman, E. A., & Williams, R. L. (1980). Effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Journal of School Psychology, 18(2), 141–147.