What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

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extrinsic motivation
Verywell / Joshua Seong

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards. These rewards can be tangible, such as money or grades, or intangible, such as praise or fame. Unlike intrinsic motivation, which arises from within the individual, extrinsic motivation is focused purely on outside rewards.

People who are extrinsically motivated will continue to perform an action, even though the task might not be in and of itself rewarding—for example, doing something at your job that you might not normally find enjoyable or rewarding in order to earn a wage.

Extrinsic motivation is involved in operant conditioning, which is when someone or something is conditioned to behave a certain way due to a reward or consequence.

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Is It Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation?

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation

Think about your motivation for reading this article. Are you trying to learn the material so that you can do well in your psychology class? If so, this is extrinsic motivation because a good grade is external reinforcement. If, on the other hand, you are interested in learning more about human behavior, then you are intrinsically motivated as you are the driving force of your motivation.

Here are some other examples of extrinsic motivation:

  • Competing for a trophy or prize, such as in a sporting event
  • Doing schoolwork to earn a good grade
  • Working hard at a task or project to receive praise and recognition
  • Shopping with a store loyalty card to gain points, discounts, and prizes
  • Incentivizing children to do their homework with a reward such as a special treat or toy
  • Performing tasks at work that you dislike in order to keep getting a steady paycheck
  • Using a particular type of credit card in order to receive airline miles
  • A child who cleans their room to receive praise from their parents
  • An actor who performs in a role to gain attention and acclaim from their audience

Sometimes the external reward may be avoiding punishment or a negative outcome. For example, someone may engage in a behavior to avoid being shamed or judged.

Effectiveness

So just how well do extrinsic rewards work for increasing motivation? This type of motivation can be highly effective. Just think of all of the examples in your own life of things that you do in order to gain some type of external reward.

Extrinsic motivation is not a bad thing. External rewards can be a useful and effective tool for getting people to stay motivated and on task. This can be particularly important when people need to complete something that they find difficult or uninteresting, such as a boring homework assignment or a tedious work-related project.

When Extrinsic Motivation Might Backfire

While offering rewards can increase motivation in some cases, researchers have also found that this is not always the case. In fact, offering excessive rewards can actually lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation.

The tendency of extrinsic motivation to interfere with intrinsic motivation is known as the overjustification effect. This involves a decrease in intrinsically motivated behaviors after the behavior is extrinsically rewarded and the reinforcement is subsequently discontinued.

In a classic experiment by Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett, children were rewarded lavishly for drawing with felt-tip pens, an activity that they had previously enjoyed doing on their own during play time.

When the children were later offered the chance to play with the pens during play time, the children who had been rewarded for using them previously showed little interest in playing with the pens again. The kids who had not been rewarded, however, continued to play with the pens.

Why would rewarding an already intrinsically rewarding behavior lead to this sudden disinterest? One reason is that people tend to analyze their own motivations for engaging in an activity. Once they have been externally rewarded for performing an action, they assign too much importance to the role of the reinforcement in their behavior.

Another possible reason is that activities that initially feel like play or fun can be transformed into work or obligations when tied to an external reward. Extrinsic rewards can be an important tool in motivating behavior, but experts warn that they should be used with caution, especially with children.

However, more research is needed on this topic to determine exactly how and when external rewards may undermine intrinsic motivation. A 2014 review from Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences examined research on motivation for learning and suggested that extrinsic rewards can actually be mostly effective and not harmful.

How to Use Extrinsic Rewards

It's important to look at the specific situation to determine if extrinsic rewards might help motivate behavior. Below are some example scenarios when extrinsic rewards may be most effective:

  • When people have little interest in the activity
  • When people lack the skills to get started
  • When a short-term motivator for a specific purpose is needed
  • When people are working on a long-term project and need small incentives to keep motivation high

In these situations, the rewards should be kept small and should be tied directly to performing a specific behavior. Once some intrinsic interest has been generated and some essential skills have been established, the external motivators should be slowly phased out.

A Word From Verywell

Extrinsic motivation can exert a powerful influence on human behavior, but it has its limits. You might find it helpful to consider whether you are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated in certain situations.

Are you looking forward to your workout because you have a bet with a friend about who can lose the most weight? Then you are extrinsically motivated. If you are eager to work out because you find the activity fun and satisfying, then you are intrinsically motivated.

Just remember that extrinsic motivation has pros and cons, so it depends on the person and situation to determine if external rewards will be beneficial in the long run.

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Article Sources
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  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Operant conditioning.

  2. Lepper MR, Greene D, Nisbett RE. Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesisJ Pers Soc Psychol. 1973;28(1):129-137. doi:10.1037/h0035519

  3. Tranquillo J, Stecker M. Using intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in continuing professional education. Surg Neurol Int. 2016;7(Suppl 7):S197-9. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.179231

  4. Jovanovic D, Matejevic M. Relationship between rewards and intrinsic motivation for learning – researches review. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2014;149:456-460. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.08.287

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