An Overview of Extrinsic Motivation

Of the two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, the latter is perhaps the most common. Extrinsic motivation can be of great benefit in stimulating interest in an activity, or in encouraging us when we lack motivation.

But what exactly is extrinsic motivation? What causes us to be extrinsically motivated, and why does it matter? Can it be harmful in the long run?

What is “Extrinsic” Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is one of two basic forms of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. It is a driving force behind the behavior of most people on the planet. To know why it is so widespread, we need to know what exactly it means.


A basic definition of extrinsic motivation is an external driving force behind our behavior. That is behavior that is motivated by external rewards, as opposed to internal ones. Doing things for the sake of enjoyable rewards as opposed to the sake of enjoyment itself.

These external rewards may be tangible (material rewards) or intangible (non-material rewards such as recognition or praise).

Extrinsic motivation does not necessarily have to be a positive reward. The threat of an unpleasant consequence usually causes most people to try to avoid that result.

When we do things to avoid an undesirable consequence, such as punishment or other negative outcomes, we are extrinsically motivated. The “reward” is the avoidance of that unwanted result.

Impact on Behavior

How does this impact our behavior? Is extrinsic behavior effective?

Extrinsic behavior can be very effective, and this was noted in the discovery of what has come to be known as operant conditioning. This term, coined by BF Skinner in 1937, refers to the association in our minds between our behavior and our consequences.

He noted that, whether negative or positive, an association between rewards and our behavior conditions us to behave in such a manner again. We do so expecting the same result, that is, a reward.

When extrinsically motivated, we continue to engage in behavior and perform an action even if the task is not rewarding in and of itself.

This can be helpful in certain instances, for example when expected to perform monotonous tasks at our job.

But this can impact our behavior in general. It can cause a lack of motivation in the absence of external rewards. This can also make necessary either a promised reward for completion of tasks or a threat of punishment for non-completion.

Extrinsic motivation can also be seen in the realm of the law. Follow the rules, obey the laws, and you will avoid the repercussions (humiliation, punishment, fines, imprisonment, etc). You will be seen as an upstanding citizen.

But we are all influenced by extrinsic motivation from a very young age. It can be difficult to escape this punishment and reward system of motivation in our daily lives. It is everywhere, and once we understand what it is, we see how prevalent this form of motivation is.

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation In Our Daily Lives

To better illustrate this form of motivation, let’s examine some examples of extrinsic motivation in our everyday lives.

Where is motivation based on meeting intangible external goals such as receiving praise, approval, and recognition or avoiding punishment? And tangible physical rewards for good behavior?

The Home

While our early childhood experiences may be mostly intrinsic – playing for the joy of it – we soon learn to associate our behavior with external factors.

And then many of us go on to teach our children the same lesson. That “good” or desired behavior gets rewarded with treats and “bad’ or undesired behavior will be punished.


From there, we go to the educational system, where our young minds are stimulated and shaped further. However, the school is yet another place where operant conditioning is firmly established.

Much like in the home, children are taught that engaging in desirable behavior will bring praise or reward. And undesirable behavior will bring disapproval and disappointment.

This is driven home through the pursuit of good grades upon completion of exams, as well as participation in sports.


Many of us acquire a love of sports at school, or even before. It is a healthy physical activity, with many benefits for the body and mind. But this is yet another arena where extrinsic motivation comes into play. And is reinforced.

In the world of sports, there is a great deal of intrinsic motivation, at least at the entry-level. Participating in sport for the “love of the game”. Taking part in physical activities for the enjoyment of it is essentially intrinsic.

But when one gets to the world of professional sports, something else creeps in. Here, extrinsic motivating factors tend to override intrinsic ones. Fame, recognition, and fandom are all extrinsic motivators. Not to mention trophies and financial rewards.

The Workplace

Another example of extrinsic motivation at its finest.

Do you work long hours at a job you don’t particularly enjoy, because “the money is good”. Are you motivated to go to work every day because failure to do so will result in bills not being paid? Is the main reason you put up with your overbearing boss the fear of being humiliated in front of your peers, or worse?

These are all extrinsic or external factors, and they can be very compelling reasons to get up in the morning and go to work. But the pursuit of wealth should not be the only motivation for one’s work. There needs to be a balance.

Comparison vs Intrinsic Motivation

A quick definition of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation shows how different they are.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation

What is the main difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic Motivation

Performing an activity or engaging in behavior for intangible personal rewards, such as the sheer enjoyment of it. Examples are playing a musical instrument for the love of music. Or participating in a sport for the love of the game.

Extrinsic Motivation

Engaging in behavior or performing an activity for tangible or intangible external rewards, like physical rewards or the avoidance of punishment or disapproval. Examples are playing a game to win a prize, or following rules to avoid a penalty.

Are There Potential Pitfalls of Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation can be helpful. But what about the excessive use of rewards? Are there potential pitfalls with extrinsic motivation? Yes, there are, and we need to keep this in mind when using extrinsic motivation to encourage others.

The offer of rewards can increase motivation and this can be useful in encouraging interest in monotonous activities. But when it is paired with ordinary day-to-day activities that can and should be intrinsically motivated, it can have a negative outcome.

The offer of rewards is a great motivator, but doing so regularly may lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation.

The Over-justification Effect

The effect of offering a reward for previously unrewarded behavior shifts the drive behind a person’s behavior from intrinsic to extrinsic.

But once that reward is no longer on offer, interest in the activity is reduced. The earlier intrinsic motivation does not return, and this necessitates the continual offering of rewards to motivate the desired behavior.

This was well demonstrated in an experiment by Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett in 1973. They rewarded children for drawing with felt-tip markers. This was an activity that the children had previously enjoyed for its own sake.

These same children later showed reduced interest in this activity in the absence of a reward. The reinforcement of their behavior Whereas children who had not been rewarded continued to enjoy drawing with the pens.

This became known as the over-justification effect, and it applies to all sorts of behavior and situations. Whether kids at play, students at school, sportspeople on the field, or employees in the workplace, the result is the same.

Consequences Of Continual Extrinsic Motivation

The over-justification effect will result if extrinsic motivation is continually reinforced. And the return to intrinsic motivation is unlikely at that point. This in turn has the following consequences:

  • A loss of intrinsic motivation
  • A reduction of interest in previously enjoyable activity or behavior
  • Unrealistic expectations of reward for any behavior
  • The need for continued rewards for an activity that was previously enjoyed without reward
  • An increase in greed, as bigger and better rewards are sought

It is possible to reverse some of these effects to a degree. But it is far easier to avoid the excessive use of extrinsic motivation in the first place. That is what we are hoping to achieve here. By understanding what is behind our behavior, we can find more constructive ways to get and stay motivated.

Closing Thoughts

While an initial or occasional reward may be the catalyst for desirable behavior, implement intrinsic motivational forces wherever possible. Your work life, school life, and home life will benefit as a result.

The continued and irresponsible use of rewards can only cause more harm than good in the long term. When using this form of motivation to encourage others, be mindful of the possible consequences.


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