Doing Damage with Ads with “Positive” Purposes: The overjustification effect

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, but by people being fundamentally people.
Terry Pratchett

The reactions to the last posting (How Ads bias your perception, or: how an ad campaign for a good purpose can be really bad) were interesting so far, e.g.:


I find it very encouraging that even people who otherwise agree with the ads had positive things to say. But I also noticed that some people seem to think that while the ads might spark conversation or controversy, the ads nevertheless were a success — because they reminded people of that important issue (negative sexism and discrimination against women).

Essentially, what the proponents of the ads argue for is that a reminder cannot hurt — that even if people are already thinking about it or try to avoid being sexist and discriminatory based on gender — another push cannot have negative effects.

But it can — and I think it most likely will.

Let’s start with two completely different examples to make the issue more concrete:

  1. Imagine you have a child and it loves drawing. Can’t get enough of it. Now imagine that you reward it with sweets every time it draws something, and you promise sweets to the child for every drawing, and you raise your voice or look disappointed if it does not draw.
    What will happen?
  2. Imagine your partner loves to do something for you that you really enjoy. Can’t get enough of it. Now imagine that you reward him/her every time s/he does this, and you promise rewards in the future, and you raise your voice or look disappointed if s/he does not do the desired behavior.
    What will happen?

In both cases, it is very likely that the other person will slowly stop enjoying the activity. Over time, this person may even come to detest the activity. Somehow you — or rather your rewards and punishments — have spoiled it.

The issue here is with the interaction of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

  • Intrinsic motivation means that the person wants to do something for its own sake. They find it rewarding or enjoyable in itself. Here for example to draw, whatever “it” was, or in the case of the ads not to show negative sexism and discrimination towards women.
  • Extrinsic motivation comes in multiple forms, ranging from a) external regulation (controlled by others), b) introjection (don’t want to do it, but I get x for it and I want x; x is status, being “a good guy”, etc.), c) identification (see value in it, but still I do it to get something else), to d) integration (aligned with personal goals, but don’t really love it in itself). No matter which form of extrinsic motivation is applied, it always includes a difference between what the person really wants, and what is ‘encouraged’ by others or by the consequences of the action.

What the sweets, or the rewards and punishments or instrumentality of the actions, do, is to use extrinsic motivation. You give the person an extrinsic “push”. It’s the same with the ads — they are giving an external, extrinsic push. For example: “See here, that’s how women are treated. To be a good man, you must not silence them (this should also apply to women, but I don’t think many will make that leap). To be a good women, you must speak up.”[*]

You would think that a person would be even more motivated with that additional extrinsic “push”. After all, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation work in the same direction. That’s a plausible expectation. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. What usually happens is an overjustification effect. People who normally do something because they like to do it (intrinsic motivation), now also act under the influence of external pressures (rewards and punishment, instrumentally, in short: extrinsic motivation). As a consequence, their intrinsic motivation goes down. The intrinsic motivation (I’m doing it because I love doing it) is substituted by extrinsic motivation. Now I also have to do it because a) I have no choice, b) to get the x that I want, c) to use it for something else, d) I don’t really like doing it on its own because I get something for it. Whatever it falls back on, the effect is that it crowds out the intrinsic motivation. The “rewards” and “punishments”, the instrumentality, that become the focus, not the activity that was part of you.

It’s the same with these ads: The extrinsic motivation of the ads reduces the intrinsic motivation of those people who identify with not showing negative sexism or discrimination to women.

But yeah, but those were not the target of the ads, were they?

Yup, but the ads do not address this. The ads do not address the viewers based on their prior motivation. They treat all viewers alike, not matter who the viewer is: “Here, this is how women are seen online.” (the argument itself is flawed, but that’s the message). It simply seems to assume that all people who view the ads are not intrinsically motivated not to show negative sexism or discrimination to women (sorry for the double negative, but the ads do not argue for treating people the same irrespective of gender, which — I suppose is not the goal of the campaign/organization behind it).

And ignoring people who already show the desired behavior is a problem, because there are — in my opinion a lot of — people, who, with the exceptions of a few areas in life, like (sex) partners and certain professions, don’t care so much about gender. They care more about character and performance.[**] And those people — and the effect these ads have on them — are neglected.

In a way this makes sense. After all, you make ads for those people who do not do what you like them to do, and who you want to show a specific behavior. And the creators argue for wide-spread negative sexism and discrimination towards women, so they have no reason to assume that there are (a lot of) people who do not show (relevant) negative sexism and discrimination. They might see that these people exist, but see them as exceptions (or apply a “no true scotsman” fallacy). Personally, I think that these “exceptions” are a sizable group.

And by being an unspecific club, these short-sighted ads burn intrinsic motivation of those who already show the desired behavior. Even worse, I would also assume a gender effect. As a man, I find the ads condescending and insulting — to me and to (almost) every male person I know of. But I can only hazard a guess how I would feel about them if I were a woman who did not identify with being a speechless victim, but who was intrinsically motivated to follow her goals and aspirations. I think that would suck. But that’s not for me to write about.

So, I think the ads are counter-productive, in more ways than one. At least if the goal is to have a world where sexism and discrimination — not only negative and towards women, but in general — are a thing of the past. I think that the ads reduce intrinsic motivation to treat people equally, thus burning those male allies for whom gender is irrelevant with the exception of a few areas, and by impeding women who do not see themselves as victims. Even worse, if you push extrinsic motivation on people who already show the desired behavior and kick out intrinsic motivation, you have to continue to use extrinsic motivation. You have to continue to use rewards and punishments, make the desired behavior instrumental for something else. That is hard to achieve and it requires a continuous and cost-intensive effort, otherwise the overall motivation drops given that the intrinsic motivation went down.

Personally, the only advantage I see of substituting intrinsic with extrinsic motivation is if you want to have a structure in place to continuously influence behavior via extrinsic rewards or punishments. After all, this would have some benefits for people working in that profession (yeah, job security!) and some other, pretty nice “side-effects” (status, power, justified world-view).

But I don’t think that this is this deliberate. I think the more likely reason is group think in its creation. There certainly was a lot of time for it (judging from the date of the searches and the time the ads went online). And this is one reason why I think that any advances towards equality (or rather: reciprocity) should be done by a heterogeneous group of people representing all sides as equals, talking honestly about advantages and disadvantages.

As for the people who like the ads — I suppose that it’s due to the reason that the ads were professionally done (the picture quality is excellent), the metaphor of the gags are easy to understand, it suits the preconceptions of many proponents (hello confirmation bias), and — using plausibility only (which is flawed) — it seems like a good idea.

However, human nature is more complicated than that — luckily for mankind, but a pity if you strive for a just world.


P.S.: If you really are in favor of those ads, perhaps because you think that they strive for what you want — a just world — just take at least one thing from this posting. Ad campaigns for social justice issues cannot ignore those who already show the desired behavior, at least, not if they really want to be as positive as they appear to be. That is very hard to do, after all, these people act in a way you want them to, yet they were not influenced by your ad (which came later). Still, you cannot afford to alienate them if you really strive for a just world. People who show the behavior you (ostensibly) like to see — yet do it independently of your efforts — are not “safe”, they can be alienated: Bad ads lose good people.


* As a psychologist, I would love to have access to the search and website data. It would allow for an overview of who searches for these phrases, how frequent the searches really are, and how large the proportion of really sexist people is vs. the proportion of feminists looking for examples of sexism and discrimination (hello self-fulfilling prophecy). Especially a linguistic analysis of the sites whether they are arguing for or against the phrase would be interesting. Hmm, casual data … there are so many interesting things in it we can use to learn more about human behavior … *sigh*

** Unfortunately, most people, esp. men, react with another kind of justification when it is said or implied that they show negative sexism or discrimination towards women. They argue that they are different than the implied majority of negative sexist and discriminatory jerks — instead of rejecting the idea that they themselves and every male person they know (including their fathers, sons, brothers, male colleagues and friends) show negative sexism and discrimination towards women. BTW, that negative sexism and discrimination is unilateral from males to females, and does not occur vice-versa, should be discarded as well as a stupid sexist attitude.


Some context about this posting:

The idea to this posting came from a discussion with a colleague about equality and the overjustification effect. There was also an A Voice for Men — Honey Badger Radio episode where a caller mentioned this problem, but could not pin it down (at about 1:41:20, a caller called JordanOwen42 ?, not the petition, but the other issue he talks about). He stated that he loves many female authors, but with all the talk about discrimination, he feels like he has to mention female authors not because he loves their writing, but to score political correctness points. In my view, that is another good example of an overjustification effect. And personally I agree, the gender of the author should be irrelevant.

The whole topic of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is larger than can be stated here in a short posting (psychology is a science, after all, that you can’t learn in an afternoon). Motivation is also not my area of research — and nobody is as stupid as an expert when s/he talks about a topic s/he is not really familiar with. Still, I think the science applies here, if you think differently, let me know, I’m happy to learn more about it. But nevertheless, the thing is, the world is complex and so are human beings. But there is information available on how to influence human behavior, how to make the world ‘a better place’, without alienating ‘the good guys’ (whatever that means). If you like to know more, I strongly recommend the works of Deci and Ryan (self-determination theory). They did some impressive work, much, much better than the usual way of going via rewards and punishments.

Note: If I look at my tagline: “How to generate, capture, and collect ideas to realize creative projects.” I am way off topic. Unless I do a contortionist-worthy stretch of arguing for using research and science when you try to achieve something. Because there is knowledge available, there are theories supported by empirical studies how to do it. But yeah, time to focus on the topic of the blog or to create a new one.

Note 2: Thinking a bit more about it (curse you, spirit of the stairway ;-)), a better title would have been: “When ‘good’ ads alienate even better people.”