What is Extrinsic Motivation and How Does it Help Us?

a wall tells you to "punch today in the face"

If you are driven by the thought of receiving a reward, whether it be praise, money, or public acclaim, you are responding to extrinsic motivation. It occurs when external factors inspire you to take action — and don’t necessarily need to be something tangible. Something abstract, such as the anticipation of receiving praise or the thought of gaining public notoriety, can boost a person’s motivation to accomplish a task.

For many, this takes the form of receiving a paycheck for a job. While you may desire to spend your day doing something leisurely or fun outside of work, receiving a paycheck allows you to afford your monthly expenses and have those desired experiences outside of work. Therefore, most of us typically set aside time for your job each week as a result.

While this form of motivation can certainly propel you to take action in some instances, intrinsic motivation is typically a more powerful incentive for behaviors that require higher dedication over the long term. If the goal of achieving personal growth fuels your motivation to succeed, you experience a more meaningful form of motivation.

Types of Extrinsic Rewards

When you imagine extrinsic motivation, you likely think of being motivated by some type of known, external reward, such as money or an award. But these rewards can be both concrete and psychological in nature. An example of this psychological form includes fame, praise, and recognition. Whether you are a performer seeking acclaim from an audience after a production wraps or are a child expecting praise from a parent for making their bed, nearly anyone can feel driven by these perceptions.

Does Extrinsic Motivation Work?

While extrinsic motivation can be a powerful tool for some people, it’s best applied only in certain situations. A person might accept a position because of the higher pay and benefits, for instance, working long hours each week to accomplish someone else’s goal. Maybe you shop with a store loyalty card to rack up the points, discounts and prizes or even use a specific credit card to accumulate cash rewards. These are all areas where you are acting because of an external award. But many caution that being driven by rewards and compensation alone is unsustainable over the long term.

This type of reward should be used sparingly, as the value for a certain behavior can be weakened over time. Deemed “overjustification,” a kind of saturation occurs when a person enjoys a reward so often that they lose interest. In fact, in one study, researchers found that research participants were less likely to engage in helpful behaviors if they received too many material rewards.

External vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the contrast to external motivation in every possible way, as it refers to a person’s behavior being driven by an internal desire. Unlike external rewards, researchers have discovered that people are more creative, productive and do a better job when they are motivated internally. Studies also show that offering external rewards for an internally rewarding activity can make it less intrinsically rewarding.

Think about your motivation right now reading this piece. Do you have a genuine interest in psychology and want to gain a better understanding about this particular topic? If so, you are acting based on an intrinsic desire to acquire knowledge. Are you reading this for some kind of report or for your job? If so, you are likely motivated by wanting to avoid a bad grade or for the possibility of recognition in the workplace. When you do something just for the pure enjoyment of the activity itself, you are intrinsically motivated.

To increase your level of intrinsic motivation, consider the following factors:

  • People are more motivated when they are challenged by pursuing goals with personal meaning
  • Curiosity stimulates a person’s desire to learn more
  • People look for areas of control over themselves and their environments
  • Competition and team collaboration can increase performance through comparison
  • Recognition can reinforce and increase internal motivation

Understanding the Impact of Motivation

It’s no secret that extrinsic motivation has the power to influence a person’s behavior and actions, but due to the overjustification effect, its impact has very clear boundaries. When engaging in new activities, it can be valuable to understand what type of motivation you’re experiencing: Is it intrinsic or extrinsic? In doing so, you’ll start to get a sense of what drives you to accomplish something and can take a closer look at why you pursue certain activities over others.

Working toward an external reward can still be valuable — especially if you find a task or activity unengaging or uninteresting. A desire to earn a paycheck, for instance, may help you stay on task remain focused no matter how boring the job may be. Why not try a mixture of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, recognizing the unique qualities that each can elicit.

Published by

Jessica DuBois-Maahs

Contributor