July 27, 2017

Extrinsic Motivation Explained

Extrinsic motivation refers to the act of doing something for external rewards. But there's more to it. Learn about the science behind it, the different types of extrinsic rewards, and the value and power of extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation refers to the act of doing something for external rewards (e.g. money, grades, and status) or to avoid negative consequences (i.e. punishment, disappointment, and embarrassment). It's a form of motivation opposite to its counterpart—intrinsic motivation. It's also a form of motivation that encourages us to perform, in pursuit or exchange, for an external reward. Essentially, this means extrinsic motivation is directly linked to external factors. The more external factors motivate us, the more extrinsically motivated we are.

In this article, you'll learn the various definitions of extrinsic motivation. Some examples of extrinsic rewards. The different types of extrinsic motivation. The science behind it. And, the value and power of it.

Extrinsic Motivation Definitions

  • To doing something because it leads to a separable outcome1.
  • The performance of an activity in order to attain a desired outcome, the opposite of intrinsic motivation2.
  • The performance of an activity because it is perceived to be instrumental in achieving valued outcomes that are distinct from the activity itself3.

Extrinsic Motivation Explained

There’s just no doubt about the power of extrinsic motivation. You may have seen a meme similar to the one shown below. It features, what appears to be, a wealthy old man with a sexy young woman. The basis of the meme is to encourage students to put hard work into their study. But, it's also a bit of light hearted humor depicting what one's future might one day look like.


This little joke pokes gentle fun at the human tendency to value extrinsic rewards above all others. Unlike intrinsic motivation, which compels us to engage in certain activities and behaviors for the sheer pleasure of it, extrinsic motivation applies to activities and actions that have direct connections to outside incentives. In other words, motivated—extrinsically, we engage in certain activities and behaviors to gain external rewards and/or to avoid external consequences. Lifting weights and exercising to get into better shape is an example of extrinsic motivation. This is because getting into better shape is an external type of reward.

Examples of Extrinsic Rewards

A key example of extrinsic motivation is our wiliness to work for a paycheck. Employers all over the world still use 'performance-based' financial rewards to motivate their employees.  This is because such external rewards prove to be effective in motivating staff to achieve business goals. Employee cash bonuses. The prospect of a salary increase. Employee travel are all examples of extrinsic rewards used in a workplace setting.

Money and other forms of financial gain, however, are far from the only types extrinsic rewards. In addition to physical goods/services, extrinsic rewards include a wide variety of immaterial positive reinforcers. For instance rewards such as praise (e.g. recognition programs), fame (e.g. widely admired), and status (e.g. better job title).

Negative reinforcement and negative consequences are also forms of extrinsic motivation. For example, parents who work hard to support their family do so because they want to avoid financial hardship. Another example is a student who studies hard for an exam to avoid failure and disappointment.

Types of Extrinsic Motivation

As described by the organization Changing Minds, extrinsic motivation primarily falls into three distinct but interrelated categories.

Category  Description
External MotivationThis type of extrinsic motivation exemplifies the typical “work for a paycheck” ideal. In other words, your actions and/or behaviors lead directly to environmental rewards or punishments.
Introjected Motivation As a human being, you naturally want to avoid bad feelings. Therefore, you will be motivated to engage in certain actions and behaviors simply to avoid internally-imposed guilt and self-blame.
Identified Motivation Perhaps the most complex of these three categories, identified motivation involved the desire to outwardly express important self-identifications such as “I am a hard worker.

The Science Behind Extrinsic Motivation

For good reason, intrinsic motivation is an important source of motivation. It is responsible for inspiring, igniting, and encouraging people from all walks of life to learn and make significant discoveries. Extrinsic motivation, by contrast, has garnered a far worse reputation. In addition to its associations with materialism and greed. Some researchers in the area of motivation look down upon extrinsic motivation. This is primarily due to its tendency to "decrease" or even "eliminate" the effects of intrinsic motivation.

Real World Experiment

In a 1973 experiment by researchers Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett4 they famously demonstrated how the use of extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. The experiment gathered two groups of children to draw pictures with felt-tip pens. At first, both groups drew with the pens simply because they wanted to. In other words, the children engaged in the activity purely because they were intrinsically motivated.

Then, researchers began rewarding one group with an additional prize (in this case, an award certificate). When this group was later offered the chance to draw without the extrinsic reward, their interest in the activity waned significantly. By contrast, the children in the control group, who had never been offered certificates (external rewards), continued to draw enthusiastically. Several weeks later all the children were brought back and reintroduced to the same activity. What's interesting is that the children who were in the "expected-reward" condition still continued to show lower intrinsic interest than to the children in the "unexpected-reward" condition.

Real World Implications

Based on this study by Lepper et al (1973), it's plausible to argue the need for extrinsic rewards. But the reality is, sometimes extrinsic rewards can prove to be beneficial to us. For instance, it can help motivate us to discover new things that deeply interest us. This, in turn, helps us to learn and grow in ways we may not have previously thought of.

Take for example Emma, a student enrolled in a computer science class. Emma doesn't particularly enjoy following through with the course curriculum. She, however, continues attending class because she needs a passing grade (extrinsic reward) to complete the course. During a class, she begins to develop a deep interest in a particular programming language. Outside of class, Emma spends countless hours learning everything (intrinsic motivation) there is to know about the programming language. Years later, she's enjoying her career at one of the world's largest banks. Her title—the "Vice President for Cyber Defence Operations". Evidently, something that may not have happened if she hadn't continued attending her computer science class in the beginning.

The Value of Extrinsic Motivation

Examining the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic and motivation in athletes, the Association of Applied Sport Psychology discovered a number of ways in which external rewards might actually strengthen intrinsic motivation. “If a reward is viewed as informing athletes about their ability in a positive manner,” it states, “then the rewards will likely foster internal satisfaction and intrinsic motivation.

Motivation Magazine contributor Ty Howard also touts the positive power of extrinsic motivation. In his article, Howard credits financial gain as "one of the greatest motivators ever created". Howard goes on to further discuss the value of teachers rewarding their students for completing extra credit assignments. An effective method, still used in many school systems today.

See alsoHow to Motivate Yourself and KEEP Yourself Motivated.

The Power of Extrinsic Motivation

As illustrated in the example of Emma, sometimes external motivators are necessary in order to achieve certain desirable results. Without extrinsic rewards, we could potentially miss out on trying new things that would otherwise be good for us. How, then, should you use extrinsic motivation to your advantage? Find a combination of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards that work. Then, use that combination to keep yourself, and others motivated. If you can manage to do this, it'll help to ensure that you remain engaged and interested.

While the pursuit of success isn't reliant on motivation alone—understanding and harnessing the power behind it certainly helps. As the legendary Mario Andretti, an Italian-American former racing driver once said;
Desire is the key to motivation, but it's the determination and commitment to unrelenting pursuit of your goal. A commitment to excellence that will enable you to attain the success you seek.


  • Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions." Contemporary Educational Psychology (2000).
  • Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. "Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being." American Psychologist (2000).
  • Teo, Thompson S.h, Vivien K.g Lim, and Raye Y.c Lai. "Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in Internet usage." Omega 27.1 (1999).
  • Lepper, Mark R., David Greene, and Richard E. Nisbett. "Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28.1 (1973).