What is Extrinsic Motivation? | Definition, Tips, and Examples

Extrinsic Motivation Intro

Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated by external factors to behave a certain way.

You certainly have seen this played out in your real life with the proverbial “carrot and stick”.

If you needed someone to do something difficult – or that was not enjoyable to them – you would dangle a reward (carrot) in front of them, and if they slacked on the work, you would use some sort of punishment (stick) to motivate them to keep at the work.

We have experienced this in our school years and still experience it in our work or day-to-day life.

Contrasted with intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation often gets a bad rep for introducing too much control and is considered a detriment to feelings of autonomy.

Although that line of reasoning is not totally wrong, there are a lot of things that are overlooked about extrinsic motivation, i.e. extrinsic motivation is a powerful motivating factor in situations where the subject has no willingness to perform the task.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and first we should look at what extrinsic motivation really is.

Creators planning

What is Extrinsic Motivation?

According to Ryan and Deci – the two researchers who gave the self-determination theory – extrinsic motivation means to acquire a satisfactory external outcome by performing a task or an activity that is not enjoyable in and of itself.

The performance of the task doesn’t bring joy by itself, but it is the prospect of acquiring a reward or avoiding punishment that drives our motivation.

A student working hard to achieve a certain grade in her exam is extrinsically motivated since grades are external rewards or external endorsements of her performance.

Extrinsic motivation is a little more complex to understand than intrinsic motivation.

Going back to the example of the student, we can also say that the student is working hard because she is looking for praise from her teachers or approval from her parents, both of which are non-material rewards, but at the same time they are not outcomes that are inherent to studying.

It should be kept in mind that there will be scenarios where the reward may not be material at all, but it still can be extrinsic.

The praise from teachers and approval from parents that the student seeks by studying hard for the exam are outcomes that are separate from the activity she is engaged in, i.e. studying.

In other words, we can say extrinsic motivation is guided by external outcomes, the acquisition or avoidance of which compels us to engage in certain desirable or non-desirable activities. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

According to traditional, old-school psychology, people are driven by incentives. Given the right incentive, you can make people work anything.

As harrowing as that may sound, it is true; take a look at this article for a detailed number of researches that prove that incentives are the key to unlocking favorable behaviors in subjects.

Money, fame, social approval, punishment, berating, praising, encouraging, and showing disappointment are all forms of external reinforcements or external sanctioning of certain behaviors.

All these tools are used to elicit a certain behavior from someone in a given circumstance.

People working a 9-to-5 job may hate the hours, the work, and the boss, but given the incentive of money and avoiding the stigma of unemployment, they may stick to the job regardless of how they feel about it.

They resign themselves to an undesirable activity all for the sake of the favorable outcome desired.

Creative Person is Never Satisfied

Who Developed the Extrinsic Motivation Theory?

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are basic types of motivation and were developed by Ryan and Deci in their 1985 book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior.

When Ryan and Deci developed the theory of self-determination and showed that how the types of motivation were equally important as the level of motivation, they upended decades of motivation research and thought.

Previously, it was thought that the only factors that mattered when it came to motivating people were incentives and punishments – external factors – but with the self-determination theory’s identification of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, it has been revealed that people are motivated by a lot of other factors.

Recognition, Rewards, Award, Goal, Success, High Five

Extrinsic Motivation Examples

Extrinsic motivation examples are all around us. Let us highlight a few here for the sake of understanding.

  • Participating in sports to get a trophy at the end of the game for winning
  • Aspiring to get the gold medal in your university
  • Eating healthy to get a killer physique that people will admire
  • Being extra thoughtful and considerate in a relationship to gain trust
  • Doing chores around the house to get praise from your parents
  • Being nice to people so that they are nice to you in return
  • Working extra hours right now to make more money in the future
  • Learning a new language so that you can become a polyglot

Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation

It is natural to assume that one type of motivation is better than the other based on your own experiences or preferences.

A person who finds that she works best while working towards a specific outcome finds that extrinsic motivation serves her better.

On the other hand, a person who pursues creativity and curiosity may find intrinsic value in the work itself.

So we can say that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations have their own places, and not one motivation is better than the other.

Having said that, here we are going to draw a comparison between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation so that you can get a better understanding for the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Intrinsic MotivationExtrinsic Motivation
Focused on the journey/processFocused on goals/outcomes
Satisfies feelings of internal
Fulfillment and brings about
State of flow
Can be fulfilling, but also can be imposing
Increases autonomyDecreases autonomy
Produces quality workDrives up productivity and quantity
Makes students enjoy learningMakes students disciplined
Present in employees who already
love what they do
Makes employees work on something that is not enjoyable
Makes you more presentCan make you resentful towards the external motivator making you work
Reinforced by internal parametersReinforced by external parameters
You start to identify with the activity
as a person (i.e. running consistently makes
you a runner)
The outcome is separate from the activity so you don’t really identify with it (running to drop fat so that you can look good is an outcome separate from the activity)
Regarded as a purer form of motivationRegarded as a form of motivation that needs the right incentives or punishments

How Do You Get Extrinsic Motivation?

There are two ways you can get extrinsic motivation:

1. Tangible Rewards

You may find that a toddler can be easily made to do certain chores if she has the right incentives before her.

The lure of a candy or ice cream are tangible rewards very often used by adults on children.

In a work setting, a boss may employ similar carrot-and-stick tactic to drive up productivity or increase employee interest in a new project.

The boss tells the employees that whoever reaches a certain target first may have a day off in the future, or that he/she could tell them that whoever participates in that new project will get certain badges et cetera that will distinguish them from the other employees.

Reward, Cheers, Congratulations

2. Intangible/Social Rewards

The intangible rewards include all the social endorsements or approvals that are bestowed by a person of authority on the person performing a certain task.

A student hard at work to get certain grades has an ulterior motive of being seen as a smart person by her peers, parents, or teachers.

Feeling smart or being called a star student is how she sees herself socially and that’s why she engages in rigorous study to maintain her status.


What are the Advantages of Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation can play a vital role in education and work contexts.

In the early development of the child, attractive extrinsic rewards are provided for learning.

In the work context, bonuses, raises, or perks are examples of extrinsic rewards to entice employees into outperforming each other and themselves.

Intrinsic motivation may be purer, but extrinsic motivation can get the job done despite the odds.

You know how difficult it can be to make a child study; a child does not have an intrinsic motivation to study. They don’t understand consequences that are far off into the future.

That’s where extrinsic motivation is so powerful because it appeals to our baser nature and primarily operates on the principle of instant gratification.

As powerful as the lure of extrinsic rewards can be, special care has to be taken so as not to go overboard with it because an extrinsic reward – no matter how alluring – will lose its spell over time or, worse, can create feelings of dependency.

To avoid both these outcomes in employing extrinsic motivation, it is better to phase out the extrinsic benefits and rewards over time in a subtle manner.

Final Remarks

Extrinsic motivation is a powerful tool used by businesses and education experts all over the world.

Extrinsic motivation works so well because we, as humans, are designed to want something at any given time.

External rewards are alluring, enticing, and that much out of grasp to make us want to work, play, or study to get them.

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