What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Every day we roll out of our beds and contemplate on what tasks and activities we’ll do next. We anticipate some of those and dread others. How come?

Well, that has something to do with the pesky thing called “motivation” – our driver for doing what we are doing (or procrastinating on some things).

As the title suggests, in this post we’ll take a close look at what is extrinsic motivation and how it can help you get better at managing yourself and others.

What is Motivation

Motivation is a very elusive concept, especially when you need to do something, but cannot force yourself to start on the task.

Psychology researchers are not really helpful here either as there are several definitions of motivation out there:

  • ….is an internal state or condition that serves to activate or energize a certain behavior and give it direction;
  • …a want or desire that fuels and directs goal-oriented behavior;
  • …an influence of needs and desires on the direction and intensity of one’s behavior.

So the safest way to put is that motivation is an internal emotional driver forcing us to behave in a certain way and do some action.

Considering that motivation is such a complex notion, scientists have approached it from different angles. There are number of different motivation theories, but most of them mainly focus on identifying what back ups our motivation.

The Baseline Principles in Different Theories of Motivations

Drives and Biological Needs: Many of our common behaviors such as eating or sleeping are motivated by biology. We have a wired urge to do those things if we want to remain healthy (and alive). So we are motivated to do those tasks.

The drive theory of motivation suggests that we are also motivated to do common actions (eat, feed, sleep) to reduce the internal tension we experience when those needs are unfulfilled. For instance, we are compelled to grab a drink when we are hot and thirsty to reduce that internal feeling of thirst. This theory is good for further explaining behaviors with a strong biological component. But it’s not without its gaps either. For instance, our natural behaviors are not always backed by actual needs. Sometimes we just eat an extra cookie (or a dozen) not because we are hungry, but because we want to.

Arousal Theory suggests that people are more motivated to do certain things that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal. For instance, when we are overly aroused we’ll seek some relaxing activities to help us calm down. And when we are feeling bored, we’ll go on and look for more fun, energizing activities that will keep us alert and amused. The main principle of the arousal theory is that we are constantly seeking the right balance for our personality type.

Instincts: The instinct theory of motivation says that most of our actions are driven by instincts – inborn patterns of behavior. We all come with an embedded set of psychological and biological drivers that motivate our behavior such as love, fear, cleanliness etc.

As you have noticed from the description of different series, motivation can be triggered by both internal and external factors. And depending on that it can be classified as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

What is Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation means that your behaviors are triggered by something from and outside, encouraging you to pursue action and earn a reward – get praised, acknowledged, given a tangible prize or avoid a not-that-great outcome.

Examples of extrinsic motivation are as follows:

  • An employee doing a boring job that he does not like is motivated by a paycheck (=tangible reward).
  • A student spends hours reading a book and studying to get good grades (= intangible reward).
  • You are cleaning your house before the guests arrive to avoid appearing as a slob to them ( = avoiding a negative outcome).

In short, we start pursuing certain action to gain either physiological or tangible reward for our efforts that comes from the outside. These are known as extrinsic rewards.

Cash, award certificates, trophies and other prizes are the most common types of such tangible extrinsic rewards. We are often ready to undergo the pain of doing something we do not particularly like or feel like to earn a living. Professional athletes endure years of ruthless training and highly-regulated routines to go and compete for various trophies and awards.

Psychological extrinsic rewards. usually, include some form of praise or public appreciation. A performer wakes up at the wee hours every day to practice their craft, to get on the stage and dazzle the audience. A junior employee is trying extra hard to get a positive word from their boss. In both of these cases, the reward isn’t tangible, but it still motivates the person to take action.

When to Rely on Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation may seem like the universal key for doubling up your activity in any situation. After all, you can assign yourself a “treat” for completing pretty much any task. However, there are some specific situations when such approach works best:

  • For short-term, unappealing types of tasks. As the old motivational adage goes “you should eat the frog first”. That is cross of the most unappetizing task from your agenda before you move on to other “delights”. However, it’s easy to get stuck with the “frog” for a long time. So when you are procrastinating on a chore you don’t want or like doing, adding an external reward can help you get on with it.
  • For motivating others to increase their output. Extrinsic rewards are a “favorite” with most managers, whose job is to increase employee performance and throughput. Offering a bonus, raise or another insensitive can make individuals work harder. However, such rewards such be backed with other positive reinforcement techniques to ensure that they work in the long run.

The Limits of Extrinsic Motivation

While the external reward approach can work in many instances, at some point it, it stops being effective due to the next factors:

Unstable longevity: As a sole motivator, extrinsic motivation falls flat in the long run. We can often notice this at the workplaces. Employees who sign up for a job mainly due to high pay and good benefits, but who find the job itself kind of lackluster, tend to eventually become highly dis-engaged and leave their jobs. I bet you have heard of a few corporate junkies who eventually gave up their six-figure jobs and decided to pursue some random leisure job instead – do farming, open a bar or work for the non-profit sector.

The overjustification effect is a more interesting phenomenon that occurs when a person already has a strong internal motivation to do some task, but when given an extrinsic reward, their vigour diminishes. For example, Sally liked writing a lot, she attended a weekly writing workshop and penned numerous short stories. Then Fancy Literary Magazine offered Sally a job as a journalist. Plus a steady paycheck for her writing (an extrinsic motivation factor). At this point, Sally should have been incredibly happy and feel motivated. She earns good money for doing what she loves. But something does not click, and she’s no longer as interested in writing as she used to.

Most commonly such scenarios happen to people who decided to pursue their passion and start a lifestyle business. But as they commercialize their passion for something, they suddenly discover that they are no longer enjoying the process that much.

Overjustification effect illustrates how extrinsic motivation can hamper someone with strong intrinsic motivation (driven by internal factors) for a certain task. So let’s take a closer look at how these two types of motivation correlate with one another.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: What’s The Difference

Intrinsic motivation means that some internal desire drives your actions. You just want to do something for its own sake. For instance, you start taking drawing classes because you are genuinely enjoying the process (not because you are envisioning how you’ll become a famous artist in 2 years).

Examples of intrinsic motivation are as follows:

  • You are reading a history book because you are curious, not because you need to study for a test.
  • One manager starts an in-company diversity group because he wants to help his peers, not just get a nod from the tops.
  • You are tidying up because you like to feel organized.

In short, the main difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation is that:

  • intrinsic motivation arises from within
  • extrinsic motivation is driven by outside factors

Intrinsic rewards are less tangible. They usually come in the form of different senses such as a sense of meaningfulness, accomplishment, fulfillment, progress etc.

How the Risk of Punishment Plays into the Different Types of Motivation

So far we have talked about how different rewards encourage us to change our behavior. However, the risk of unpleasant consequences (punishment) can also drive us to get things done faster. Some students feel the most motivated only when the deadline is looming upon them. So workers will do everyone in their power to avoid negative feedback or criticism from their peers or the boss.

When it comes to extrinsic motivation, the perspective of punishment can play a somewhat negative role. For instance, one student is very concerned about the upcoming text and studies hard to perform well. They also know that the professor is lax. So if they want to guarantee a good grade, they can cheat on that test. But they choose to pass the exam on their own and when later analyzing why they didn’t cheat they conclude that “cheating is bad”.

Now imagine the same person walking into an exam, closely watched by several proctors. Before starting, everyone’s warned that the consequences for any signs of cheating will be incredibly severe. The student didn’t cheat, but their reasoning for this will likely be different. They didn’t cheat because they were afraid of the punishment. In the second case, the person failed to internalize the belief that cheating is wrong, which can be problematic.


Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have their merit in different situations and can be effectively used for transforming your behavior. External rewards are undeniably powerful tools to encourage yourself (or others) to perform certain tasks. However, this type of motivation also has certain limits and cannot be sustained for the long-term.

Photo by: Marc Mueller

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