When Extrinsic Rewards Become “Sour Grapes”: An Experimental Study of Adjustments in Intrinsic and Prosocial Motivation

AuthorAlexander Kroll,Gregory A. Porumbescu
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2019, Vol. 39(4) 467 –486
© The Author(s) 2015
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X15608419
When Extrinsic Rewards
Become “Sour Grapes”:
An Experimental Study of
Adjustments in Intrinsic and
Prosocial Motivation
Alexander Kroll1 and Gregory A. Porumbescu2
This article challenges conventional wisdom put forward by the motivational crowding
literature by examining whether hypothetical changes to incentive structures can cause
variation in employee motivation. It links such motivational adjustments to theories
of cognitive dissonance and self-rationalization, and thereby offers a more nuanced
perspective on government reforms in the area of human resource management.
The article puts forward the idea that expectations of few extrinsic rewards can
raise employees’ levels of intrinsic and prosocial motivation; this response is seen as
a cognitive coping mechanism to self-justify the value of one’s work. A randomized
experiment with 129 public administration students provides partial evidence for the
hypothesized effect. Students who were confronted with media information suggesting
that few extrinsic rewards can be expected in a public-sector career reported higher
scores of intrinsic motivation than the group whose vignette suggested the opposite.
No effect was found with regard to students’ public service motivation.
public service motivation, employee attitudes, behavior, and motivation, organizational
behavior/development, performance and performance appraisal
1Florida International University, Miami, USA
2Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alexander Kroll, Assistant Professor of Public Administration, Steven J. Green School of International
and Public Affairs, Florida International University, 11200 S.W. 8th Street, PCA 351B, Miami, FL 33199,
Email: akroll@fiu.edu
875617ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X15608419Kroll and Porumbescu
468 Review of Public Personnel Administration 39(4)
Intrinsic and prosocial motivations have been identified as critical variables in public-
and nonprofit-sector contexts. Although both types of motivation have often been
treated as somewhat related, they are different in that the former refers to the enjoy-
ment of one’s work and the latter to helping others as sources of motivation. Employees
driven by these motivations have been found to outperform other employees in both
in-role and extra-role behaviors (Bellé, 2013; Kroll & Vogel, 2014). They do particu-
larly well in carrying out tasks that are complex, and require creativeness and addi-
tional effort, yet are not rewarded (for reviews, see Gagne & Deci, 2005; Perry,
Hondeghem, & Wise, 2010; Wright & Grant, 2010). Both motivational bases are val-
ued in the public and nonprofit context because they match well with what public
service organizations can offer—interesting jobs and the opportunity to make a differ-
ence in society. Particularly, when we consider that highly qualified college graduates
often have better prospects to make more money in private-sector companies, people’s
distinct intrinsic or prosocial motivation can be an important reason why they still
decide to join public service organizations (Vandenabeele, 2008; Wright & Christensen,
As intrinsic as well as prosocial motivation are considered conducive to improving
a workforce’s performance, research has been interested in studying them as outcome
variables (e.g., Dysvik, Kuvaas, & Gagne, 2013; Jacobsen, Hvitved, & Andersen,
2014; Moynihan & Pandey, 2007; Pandey & Stazyk, 2008). Aside from findings that
suggest these sources of motivation can vary with different degrees of education, pro-
fessionalism, tenure, or religiousness, attention has been drawn to variables that can be
influenced through managerial interventions. In particular, a rich stream of research
has been devoted to studying the effects of incentive systems on these motivations
(e.g., R. Davis & Stazyk, 2014; Jacobsen et al., 2014; Weibel, Rost, & Osterloh, 2010).
These studies, which are discussed in greater detail in the next section of the article,
widely draw on motivation crowding theory. They propose that prosocial and intrinsic
motivation, which both require a certain amount of autonomy, decrease if extrinsic
incentives are present. This is because extrinsic incentives reinforce an external locus
of control, thereby limiting autonomy.
Although there is a good deal of research supporting the general mechanism out-
lined above (for an overview, see Frey & Jegen, 2001), this article contributes to a
better understanding by shedding light on an issue that has received relatively little
attention in the mainstream crowding literature despite the theory’s recent advance-
ments (Ariely, Bracha, & Meier, 2009; Gagne & Deci, 2005; Gorin & Schmidt, 2015).
Specifically, this study offers an alternative perspective on crowding effects, arguing
that variation in intrinsic and prosocial motivation can result from expectations of a
changing incentive structure rather than, or in addition to, substantive extrinsic moti-
vational incentives. In a nutshell, this article argues that changes in reported intrinsic
and prosocial motivation can result from cognitive coping mechanisms that arise in
situations where employees are led to expect few extrinsic rewards. For example, if
led to expect fewer extrinsic rewards, employees may report higher levels of intrinsic

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