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 a task even though it might not be in and of itself rewarding. For example, they will do something at their job that they don't find enjoyable 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. Your curiosity and desire to learn is 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
  • Doing homework to earn 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 credit card in order to receive airline miles

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, or to avoid being assessed a fine.

Impact of Extrinsic 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.

How to Use Extrinsic Motivation

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 them going

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.

In the Workplace, Parenting, and Education

Extrinsic motivation can play a role across many areas of life. For example, your boss might hold an ad design competition in which the winner earns a prize. Parents might offer their children special treats or outings for performing all their chores for the week. In education, the Dean's List recognizes students who attain high grades.

In all of these situations, some external factor serves as a force that drives positive behavior. With careful application, extrinsic motivation can result in intrinsic motivation—in which a person performs a task well simply because they enjoy it, find it fulfilling, or feel a sense of pride.

Potential Pitfalls of Extrinsic Motivation

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 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.

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 exercise fun and satisfying, then you are intrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic motivation has pros and cons. It depends on the person and situation whether external rewards will be beneficial in the long run.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Operant conditioning. APA Dictionary of Psychology.

  2. 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

  3. 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

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

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.