Extrinsic motivation refers to the drive to do something in exchange for a reward that’s separate from the pure enjoyment of the task.
It is contrasted to intrinsic motivation, which refers to the drive to do a task for the pleasure of the task itself.
Examples of extrinsic motivators include praise, food, money, special privileges, avoiding punishments, and trophies.
A simple scholarly definitions is provided below:
“Extrinsic motivation is the drive to engage in a task for some reason outside the task itself—for example, to gain a reward, win a competition, or earn a positive evaluation.” (Zhou, 2015)
Extrinsic Motivation Examples
Children and animals are highly motivated by praise, but it wanes as we get older. Nevertheless, many adults still seek praise, especially from mentor or people they admire.
Praise is often used in the preschool classroom, for example, when a teacher will overtly praise a child for doing the correct thing or answering a question well. Similarly, people overtly praise their dogs as a form of positive reinforcement.
Even in adulthood, praise is regularly used as a motivator, such as at university, when a teacher might provide praise when a student does well in an essay. Nevertheless, it tends to have waned significantly from about ages 8 and up (Locke & Schattke, 2019).
Rewards is extensively used as an extrinsic motivator for training pets.
For example, when training a dog, a treat will be used as a reinforcer when a dog does a task such as sitting or rolling.
In adulthood, we still use food as an extrinsic reward during self-motivation. For example, we might reward ourselves with a food treat if we complete a certain number of hours of study, or a great meal after getting a promotion at work as a way to celebrate.
Money is used as an extrinsic motivator for just about everyone on earth. In fact, barely a soul would turn up to work tomorrow if they weren’t rewarded with cash!
Money has become the central motivation force in capitalist societies because it is a proxy for many other rewards. Money has agreed-upon value and can be traded for a vast aray of other positive reinforcements of value: food, toys, housing, new clothes, experiences, travel, and so on.
So, by giving someone money, we are giving them the option to trade it in for a range of extrinsic rewards of their choice.
4. Special Privileges
Special privileges refer to benefits that a person can receive as an informal ‘favor’ in exchange for a desired behavior.
In education and parenting, they tend to be of value for children who are in middle childhood – i.e. ages 7 thru 14. Teachers, for example, will give children special access to restricted toys or educational technologies if they go above and beyond in their school work or behavior.
Even in adulthood, special privileges are provided in many situations. For example, politicians often give special access to press in exchange for favorable press coverage.
5. Avoiding Punishments
In psychology, we can also use negative reinforcements to shape behavior. This occurs when a person will receive a negative consequence if they do not do something.
For example, in childhood, we might receive punishment if we don’t do our chores. So, in this case, we do our chores in order to avoid punishment.
This is still considered an example external motivation because the motivation to do the task is not for the intrinsic value of the task itself, but in order to achieve a goal external from (but connected to) the task.
8. Trophies and Certificates
Trophies and certificates serve as extrinsic motivators because they can be used by their holders as symbols of achievement or success.
For example, a competitive swimmer might try extra hard in training not because she enjoys swimming, but because she desperately wants to win the trophy at an upcoming competition.
Trophies and certificates that are hard to get, or given out by elite institutions, are particularly useful for people who seek social status. They can assign cultural capital to the holder and may even be useful in the future for achieving a higher-paying job.
9. Good Grades
One of the key external motivators for students is good grades assigned by a teacher.
Grades are an assessment of how well someone did, but they’re also a measure of a person’s attainment in comparison to others in their class. As a result, like certificates, they’re a measure of social status.
If a student succeeded at school simply out of enjoyment of the learning or tasks then learning would be considered an intrinsic motivator. But for most students, they learn specifically in order to obtain an external reward such as grades or a socially recognized qualification.
10. Belonging and Community
Humans intrinsically desire belonging and community (considered intrinsic rewards), but we often have to do tasks we don’t like in order to achieve a sense of belonging.
As a result, a sense of belonging becomes the external reward that we get in exchange for things like being upbeat and lighthearted in public, attending social events that we might find tedious (but where we can make contacts), and engaging in prosocial behaviors.
Stickers are often used with young children as a simple but highly effective form of external motivation.
For example, they’re one of the most common rewards used during potty training. A child who goes to the bathroom when they need to will be rewarded with a sticker on a sticker chart.
Similarly, teachers extensively use stickers in homework books and may even implement a step-up reward strategy such as giving a special bigger reward once a certain number of stickers have been received.
In this context, the motivation to do good work in your homework is extrinsic because it is driven by the desire to receive another sticker rather than the desire to actually do your homework.
12. Tokens (Token Economy)
It involves assigning tokens to students when they do good work or behave in the desired manner.
But the magic of the token economy is that the tokens aren’t just like stickers. Instead, they can be exchanged later for other reinforcers that are highly appealing to the recipients.
The tokens can be fake gold coins, fake cash, or any other item that the teacher deems appropriate.
13. A Promotion
A promotion may be an external reward for going above and beyond at work.
Most people who stay back at work, put their hand up to take the lead on a project, and attend all the work social events aren’t doing this for fun. They have a greater goal: career advancement.
Here, we can see that the task itself isn’t the reward (that would be intrinsic motivation). Rather, doing these things at work is a pathway to an external reward: the eventual promotion.
14. Public Recognition
Some people are highly motivated by recognition – especially if it’s public, and from an authority figure.
This may be in the form of recognition at a school or company speech and an awards night. But in reality, most of the time this is a loved one saying lovely things about us in social situations. These sorts of subtle comments can be extremely rewarding and motivate us to continue doing what we’re doing!
15. Social Status
Social status is a strong motivator for many people. It refers to your perceived rank on the social hierarchy.
People choose their entire careers based on the status it ascribes to them, then spend the money they earn from those jobs on objects – cars, houses, clothing – that imbue them with status, as well.
However, there are also people who don’t want to “keep up with the Joneses” and prefer to shirk social status altogether. So, like all motivators, this one varies in effect from person to person.
16. Quality Time
Quality time can be a motivator for both adults and children. It refers to time to do what you genuinely enjoy, or, to get extra time away from work and chores.
In childhood, we often get given free time once we complete a task or (in school) if we have behaved well (‘if you behave yourselves, we’ll spend 10 minutes at the end of the lesson playing a game’).
In adulthood, it often motivates us to put our heads down and complete a task we don’t want to do, knowing that on the other side, we can relax guilt free.
An external motivator in the world of business and advertising is discounts on goods and services you want and need.
For example, you might be incentivized to do a survey – which you would otherwise be uninterested in – because it gives you a 20% discount voucher at the shops.
Similarly, people are rewarded for being loyal customers through a discount code – “buy 10, get 1 free.” These sorts of rewards might encourage us to return to shop at the same place regularly in exchange for savings.
People who crave attention might do a range of unpleasant things, from wearing uncomfortable clothing to completing chores in the hope that you’ll be noticed.
Many adults, for example, will dress-up, put on make-up, wear uncomfortable high heels, and so on, for the attention of someone they may have a crush on.
Similarly, children are often chided for attention-seeking behaviors. They may act silly at the dinner table or try to do something dangerous not for the enjoyment of the task (although it may be fun), but primarily because they want the attention of their parents or friends.
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation
One one side, extrinsic refers to being driven to do something in exchange for an external rewards. On the other side, intrinsic refers to being driven to do something for the pleasure of the task itself.
Generally, people agree that intrinsic motivation is a more powerful force (Tranquillo & Stecker, 2016) – if someone is doing a task they enjoy, they will have more persistence and resilience, and do it longer. But extrinsic motivators are still extremely powerful because they can help people do things that are less pleasurable but still necessary to complete.
|Motivation driven by external rewards or factors, such as praise, money, or other incentives (Reiss, 2012).
|Motivation driven by internal factors, such as personal satisfaction, enjoyment, or a sense of accomplishment.
|Tangible rewards (money, grades, trophies, promotions), praise, attention, social recognition, avoidance of punishment.
|Interest, curiosity, passion, challenge, mastery, personal growth, autonomy, competence (Tranquillo & Stecker, 2016).
|Can help to get us started on a task, easy to implement and follow-through, highly effective for young children, helps for getting uncomfortable tasks done.
|More enjoyable, leads to longer time on tasks, energizing, fosters personal growth, easier to self-regulate.
|Rewards tend to decrease in effect over time (known as habituation), encourages dependence on external rewards rather than self-discipline, encourages us to pursue tasks that are not personally enjoyable (Reiss, 2012).
|Unrealistic for all tasks, can lead to expectation that people work for enjoyment rather than compensation (Tranquillo & Stecker, 2016).
|Works best for
|Routine and simple tasks, short-term goals, children, animals, chores.
|Long-term goal setting, tasks that require persistence and deep engagement.
|Impact on overall well-being
|Can lead to dependence on external rewards, can result in low levels of personal autonomy, often leaves poor job satisfaction in the long run.
|Leads to high self-esteem due to sense of competence at enjoyable tasks, promotes personal autonomy, encourages us to pursue our interests.
Extrinsic Motivation Pros and Cons
Benefits of Extrinsic Motivation
- Encourages goal completion: Many tasks would not be completed if there weren’t a goal at the end of the task. As a result, external rewards can be powerful incentives, especially when the reward is personalized to the individual (Locke & Schattke, 2019).
- Easy to implement: Whereas it can be hard to find intrinsic interest in a task, any taks can be accompanies with an extrinsic motivator.
- Performance measurement: Extrinsic motivation often involves clear metrics such as a grade on an exam or a financial number attached to benchmarks. This makes it useful for measuring performance and comparing it to previous performance or other people (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
- Can kick-start motivation: When you lack intrinsic motivation for a task, you can utilize extrinsic rewards in order to initiate the task. Sometimes, intrinsic motivation comes later.
- Useful for routine tasks: Extrinsic motivation is very common for tasks that are routine such as chores or studying. Consider, for example, rewarding yourself after 20 minutes of studying with a cup of coffee!
Limitations of Extrinsic Motivation
- Short-term focus: Extrinsic motivation tends to fade quickly. Behavioral psychologists have observed that fixed interval scheduling of rewards leads to desensitization. It is recommended that rewards are switched up and random interval rewards be provided for many tasks (Locke & Schattke, 2019).
- Decreased performance without rewards: Often, when external rewards are finally removed, performance can decline and motivation disappears. For example, some dogs will not sit unless they know there is definitely going to be a food reward after performing the task (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
- Dependence on rewards: Too much use of external rewards can lead to over-reliance on, and expectation of, rewards. It may result in the inability to self-regulate and do any tasks for their intrinsic value.
Extrinsic motivation examples are all around us – from money to food to social status. While they’re extremely useful in the short-term or for simple tasks, they are generally found to be less effective than intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2020), which is the drive to do a task for its inherent value.
Locke, E. A., & Schattke, K. (2019). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: Time for expansion and clarification. Motivation Science, 5(4), 277.
Reiss, S. (2012). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Teaching of psychology, 39(2), 152-156. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312437704
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 61, 101860. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860
Tranquillo, J., & Stecker, M. (2016). Using intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in continuing professional education. Surgical neurology international, 7(7). doi: https://doi.org/10.4103%2F2152-7806.179231
Zhou, J. (2015). The Oxford handbook of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]