The effects of extrinsic reinforcement on intrinsic motivation: An evaluation in a regular classroom using existing classroom rules

Karen Angeleque Akin-Little


The purpose of the current investigation was to further examine the effects of extrinsic reinforcement/reward on children's intrinsic motivation, particularly as it pertains to rule compliant behavior in the classroom setting. In spite of an extensive literature supporting the efficacy of extrinsic reinforcement procedures, some cognitive psychologists (e.g., Deci, Lepper, & Kohn) maintain that such procedures are detrimental. Specifically, they claim that extrinsic reinforcement is especially detrimental to the intrinsic interest of children who are already intrinsically motivated to succeed in the classroom, and have cautioned against the promiscuous use of token reinforcement programs in the classroom (Levine & Fasnacht, 1974) because of this supposed undermining effect . The present study videotaped and coded the behavior of selected children from a regular elementary school classroom, half of whom were identified as displaying compliance with classroom rules and half of whom were identified as non-compliant. The group of children displaying low levels of compliant behavior represent an analog to the children for whom token reinforcement programs are usually implemented. The group of children exhibiting high levels of compliant behavior represented an analog to the children for whom the overjustification or undermining effect is of principal concern. Results indicated that the introduction of a token reinforcement program contingent on the occurrence of rule compliance had no detrimental effect on children's intrinsic motivation, regardless of level of initial interest, to perform selected classroom compliant behaviors following the withdrawal of the token procedure. Reinforcement effects did vary as a result children's level of initial interest as expected. The low interest group clearly demonstrated a reinforcement effect and the high interest group maintained a high rate of compliant behavior across all phases. Results which were somewhat unexpected were the additive effects the token reinforcement program appeared to have on the compliant behavior rates of all three students in the low interest group. Reinforcement phase performance levels were maintained throughout Baseline II and the Follow-Up phase for all students. Most importantly, in an examination of the data from the high interest group, the overjustification effect was not evidenced.