Church and the Overjustification Effect

My 2008 master’s project included a review of literature that delved extensively into criticisms of consumer-oriented church growth models. Most specifically this had to do with the film industry and its attempts to fuse movie marketing messages with church worship and teaching materials (a practice that still continues in various forms).

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Barry Schwartz

The consumerist critique begs the question as to what aspects of consumer behavior are counterproductive to the goal of growing churches. While the potential avenues of inquiry to answer this question are many, I recently came across something from psychologist Barry Schwartz cited in Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here that prompted my thinking specific to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the “overjustification effect.”

[The] enthusiastic embrace of the view that self interest simply is what motivates human behavior has led us to create social structures that cater to self-interest. – Barry Schwartz

The seminal research by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) defined the overjustification effect as a phenomenon in which an individual’s more intrinsic interest in an activity decreases when they are induced to engage in the activity as a means to gain an extrinsic goal.

While research since Lepper et al. has scaled back the significance of earlier overjustification effect studies, a solid critique by Cameron, Banko and Pierce (2001) conceded that there was a negative effect on intrinsic motivation when the rewards were tangible, expected and only loosely associated with the performance level of the subject.

Christianity in its American form could be said to have always existed in tension between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Indeed, the extrinsic have been built into the narrative in the form of eternal punishment and eternal reward juxtaposed with more intrinsic qualities of a rightly ordered relationship with God and fellow humans facilitated by unmerited grace.

Yet, I would argue, local church adherence (in contrast with the Christian religion itself) has been less about other extrinsic rewards until the latter part of the 20th century. Since then, the development of more highly “produced” worship experiences—the coupling of productized music and teaching—has increasingly become the extrinsic motivation for church attendance (and ultimately financial support).

Human beings are unfinished Animals: what we can reasonably expect of people depends upon how our social institutions finish them. – Barry Schwartz

some textEntertainment—music, lighting effects, screen-based media, TED-style talks—comprise the prevailing extrinsic motivation on offer by many large evangelical churches today that have the means to deliver it. This occurs in a cultural context where entertainment is almost always formulated as a tangible commodity with either a direct economic value (tickets, subscriptions, retail) or indirect human attention value (television, Internet) (Smythe, 1977). This sets the stage (pardon the pun) for a situation where the perceived performance level required of the subject/consumer is mere attendance.

The risk, according to overjustification effect research, is that the receivers of these extrinsic rewards may have their more important intrinsic motivations dulled—even to the point of devaluing participation in deeper Christian formation and their faith community where intrinsic qualities must endure over time.

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