Cognitive evaluation theory


“It’s strange,� said Kavita“ I started work as a volunteer at an NGO. I put in 18 hours a week helping expectant mothers in slums and advising them on nutritious diet and care. I loved going to work. “Then, three month ago, they hired me full time at Rs18,000 a month. I am doing the same work I did before, but I’m not finding it nearly as much fun�.

There’s an explanation for Kavita’s reaction. It’s called cognitive evaluation theory and it proposes that the introduction of extrinsic rewards, such as pay for work effort that was previously intrinsically rewarding due to the pleasure associated with the content of the work itself tends to decrease overall motivation. Cognitive evaluation theory has been extensively researched, and a large number of studies have been supportive. We’ll show, the major implications for this theory relate to the way in which people are paid in organizations.

Historically, motivation theorists generally assumed that intrinsic motivations such as achievement, responsibility, and competence were independent of extrinsic motivators such as high pay, promotions, good supervisor relations, and pleasant working conditions. But cognitive evaluation theory suggests otherwise. It argues that when extrinsic rewards are used by organizations as payoffs for superior performance, the intrinsic rewards, which are derived from individuals doing what they like, are reduced. In other words, when extrinsic rewards are given to someone for performing an interesting task, it causes intrinsic interesting the task itself to decline.

Why would such an outcome occur? The popular explanation is that the individual experiences a loss of control over his or her own behavior so that the previous intrinsic motivation diminishes. Furthermore, the elimination of extrinsic rewards can produce a shift— from an external to an internal explanation—in an individual’s perception of causation of why he or she works on a task. If you’re reading a novel a week because your English literature instructor requires you to, you can attribute our reading behavior to an external source. However, after the course is over, if you find yourself continuing to read a novel a week, you natural inclination is to say, “I must enjoy reading novels because I’m still reading one a week.â€?

If the cognitive evaluation theory is valid, it should have major implications for managerial practices. It has been a truism among compensation specialists for years that if pay or other extrinsic rewards are to be effective motivators, they should be made contingent on an individual’s performance. But, cognitive evaluation theorists would argue that this will only tend to decrease the internal satisfaction that the individual receives from doing the job. In fact, if cognitive evaluation theory is correct, it would make sense to make an individual’s pay non contingent on performance in order to avoid decreasing intrinsic motivation.

We noted earlier that the cognitive evaluation theory has been supported in a number of studies yet it has also met with attacks, specifically on the methodology used in these studies and in the interpretation of the findings. But where does this theory stand today? Can we say that when organizations use extrinsic motivators such as pay and promotions to stimulate workers’ performance they do so at the expense of reducing intrinsic interest and motivation in the work being done? The answer is not a simple “Yes� or “No�

Although further research is needed to clarify some of the current ambiguity, the evidence does lead us to conclude that the interdependence of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards is a real phenomenon. However, its impact on employee motivation at work, in contrast to motivation in general, may be considerably les than originally thought. First, many of the studies testing the theory were done with students, not paid organizational employees. The researchers would observe what happens to a student’s behavior when a reward that had been allocated is stopped. This is interesting, but it doesn’t represent the typical work situation. In the real world, when extrinsic rewards are stopped, it usually means the individual is no longer part of the organization. Second, evidence indicates that very high intrinsic motivation levels are strongly resistant to the detrimental impacts of extrinsic rewards. Even when a job is inherently interesting, there still exists a powerful norm for extrinsic payment. At the other extreme, on dull tasks extrinsic rewards appear to increase intrinsic motivation. Therefore, the theory may have limited applicability to work organizations because most low-level jobs are not inherently satisfying enough to foster high intrinsic interest and many managerial and professional positions offer intrinsic rewards.

Cognitive evaluation theory may be relevant to that set of jobs that falls in between—those that are neither extremely dull nor extremely interesting.

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  • Each mini-theory has been developed to explain a set of motivationally based phenomena that emerged from laboratory and field research focused on different issues. Cognitive evaluation theory addresses the effects of social contexts on intrinsic motivation. This theory argues that intrinsic motivation is maintained only when actors feel competent and self-determined.