Extrinsic motivation refers to sources of motivation that come from outside oneself. For example, the promise of a promotion at work or the threat of losing a job can be a form of extrinsic motivation.

Depending on the situation, extrinsic motivation can come from positive reinforcement, such as a reward, or negative reinforcement, such as a punishment.

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from within. Passion, altruism, and enjoyment may motivate someone to do something regardless of whether there is an external reward. Sometimes, a person has a mixture of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Most research shows that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can encourage people to perform tasks or achieve short-term goals. The effects of these different types of motivation on long-term goals are less clear.

Some research suggests that too much extrinsic motivation may undermine learning and goal achievement over time and reduce intrinsic motivation.

In this article, learn more about extrinsic motivation, including its advantages and disadvantages and how to use it in a range of situations.

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Motivation is the desire to do something. Extrinsic motivation describes any situation where someone’s desire to act occurs due to external factors, such as:

  • a potential reward
  • a potential punishment
  • certain short- and long-term consequences

What people find extrinsically motivating can depend on their wants, needs, and values.

For example, a student who does not care about their grades will not find the thought of getting a low grade a good source of extrinsic motivation because they do not value their academic performance. However, they might dislike the prospect of repeating the school year if they fail, which may motivate them.

Sometimes, extrinsic motivation is the only motivation for doing something. Other times, people have a mixture of motivations. These could include:

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation means that someone’s desire to do something comes from inside them and does not need any external reward or punishment to prompt it. Pleasure, passion, and moral principles can be forms of intrinsic motivation.

Unlike extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation does not revolve around the consequences of an action. People feel motivated regardless of the outcome.

Achievement motivation

Some scholars add a third category of motivation, known as achievement motivation, to this list.

According to this concept, intrinsic motivation means that a person likes the task. Achievement motivation means that they like achieving goals.

For example, a child entering a spelling bee might not enjoy learning words, but they may enjoy winning the competition, even if there is no physical reward.

However, not everyone agrees that this is a separate category. Some might argue that it is a variant of intrinsic motivation or that it involves elements of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Some examples of extrinsic motivation include:

  • Rewards: A person may wish to complete tasks to acquire stickers, toys, money, or approval from others.
  • Punishments: Examples include time-outs, the loss of certain privileges, or suspension from school or work.
  • Competition with others: A person may want to perform better than their peers when it comes to school grades or behavior charts.
  • Compensation: Tips, company perks, and pay rises can motivate people to work hard when providing goods or services.

Some examples of intrinsic motivation include:

  • Pleasure: This could come from the fun of a creative hobby or the thrill of something dangerous.
  • Curiosity: A person may feel motivated to read a book because it sounds interesting.
  • A love of learning: This may encourage someone to learn a language in their free time.
  • Passion: Passion may spur someone to take on extra tasks at work without hope of reward.
  • Morals: An example includes always telling the truth due to the belief that it is wrong to lie.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are not mutually exclusive. In some situations, both play a role.

For example, a student at medical school can have intrinsic motivation from their love of the subject. However, their earning potential when they graduate may provide extrinsic motivation.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can help a person achieve their goals. Some studies suggest that intrinsic motivation is more motivating.

A 2019 study of biology students found that although intrinsic motivation more strongly affects learning-related behavior, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators could encourage achievement.

Another 2019 study found that intrinsic motivation to read led to more reading achievement in some grades, and vice versa. However, there was no such link to extrinsic motivation.

A 2016 research article notes that extrinsic rewards may also undermine how effectively people take in knowledge, affecting their ability to perform well in tests and exams. When researchers offered money for a good test performance to some participants and no reward to the others, the latter group actually had better memory recall and gave more correct answers.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation may help a person change their habits.

Some proponents of extrinsic motivation argue that it can eventually become integrated into someone’s behavior. For example, a person might reward themselves for tidying their room until that task becomes a part of their daily routine.

However, other research suggests that intrinsic motivation might have a better effect on habit formation. A 2018 study assessed the role of reward in establishing the habits of flossing and taking a vitamin C supplement. The researchers found that intrinsic motivators were more reliable predictors of habit formation.

According to the study authors, prior research supports this conclusion. They note that intrinsic motivators, such as feeling healthier after quitting smoking, can have a stronger effect on the formation of habits.

The use of extrinsic motivation in parenting is fairly common. Parents and caregivers may find that it helps motivate children to do things that they consider boring, such as brushing their teeth or completing their homework.

However, it may be beneficial to see whether a child has any intrinsic motivation to do a task before trying this technique.

Several older studies suggest that relying too heavily on extrinsic rewards may undermine a child’s motivation to perform without them. This may be especially true for activities that are already rewarding.

For example, some children like helping adults cook or clean, as it makes them feel useful or grown-up. However, if an adult assumes that the child will not help unless they have a reward, the child may look forward to the reward instead. This might reduce their intrinsic motivation.

Certain types of extrinsic motivation are also potentially harmful. For instance, food rewards can teach children that some foods are “good” while others are “bad,” which then attaches emotions, such as guilt, to certain food choices.

Later in life, this can contribute to the cycles of eating and shame that disordered eating typically involves. It may also encourage children to eat when they are not hungry or eat more than they need.

If a parent or caregiver wishes to use a reward, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends non-food rewards, such as:

  • stickers
  • play dates
  • sleepovers
  • fun trips or activities
  • time off from chores

Both types of motivation have the potential to cause harm. At its most extreme, extrinsic motivation can include excessive punishment and abuse.

Intrinsic motivation can also cause someone to act in ways that cause indirect or unintentional harm to themselves or others. For example, a person looking for fun may participate in cliff jumping, even though this activity is risky.

However, some people believe that extrinsic motivators are inherently less beneficial than intrinsic ones, particularly those that a person does not internalize, such as a rule they disagree with or a task they dread doing.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a concept from psychology that asserts that autonomy — a person’s ability to make their own decisions — is highly important for happiness and growth. External pressures can limit this, as rules may exist that people have to follow whether they want to or not.

This may only apply to extrinsic motivation that a person or institution imposes on someone else, though. If someone has set their own goal and rewards for hitting certain milestones, they still have autonomy.

A significant downside of intrinsic motivation is that a person must genuinely want to do something to benefit from it. People can influence and inspire others to have intrinsic motivation by changing their perspective on a task, but this can be a skill that people have to learn.

Extrinsic motivation is when someone feels motivated to do something to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. For instance, they may hope to get money, gifts, or recognition. Alternatively, they may fear having fewer privileges or being grounded.

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be both useful and harmful. Extrinsic motivation may help in the early stages of forming a new habit or when an action is unlikely to be inherently motivating or rewarding in itself.

However, frequent rewards, and certain types of rewards, may have negative consequences. Due to this, people should be mindful of the types of extrinsic motivation they are using, particularly with children.