Extrinsic rewards are external incentives or outcomes, such as money, items of monetary value, praise, or trophies, provided to individuals to motivate certain behaviors or achievements.
They are often used to encourage performance or enhance motivation in educational, workforce, or competitive settings. For example, providing a sticker to a child who completes their homework and giving a Christmas bonus to a high-performing worker both function as extrinsic rewards.
However, they may not always lead to long-term engagement or internal motivation. Research consistently finds that the minute extrinsic rewards are withdrawn, motivation falls off a cliff. Furthermore, rewards may actually decrease intrinsic motivation, defined as desire to complete the task for its innate enjoyment (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999).
Definition of Extrinsic Rewards
Extrinsic rewards are rewards that are associated with completing a task, but not inherent in the pleasuse of completing task itself. They are considered ‘tangible’ rewards.
As Lanik (2018) explains:
“Extrinsic rewards are tangible, physical things that you receive for doing something-for example, a prize or a medal or a certificate.”
He contrasts this definition with a definition of intrinsic rewards:
“An intrinsic reward is something intangible, like a feeling of personal satisfaction or a sense of accomplishment.”
Let’s go deeper into this contrast between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic Vs Extrinsic Rewards
Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards serve as motivators but differ in their origin and impact on individuals.
- Intrinsic rewards are internally-driven and arise from the individual’s own satisfaction or from the accomplishment of a task, promoting long-term engagement and self-motivation. They often lead to a deeper understanding and mastery of a task due to the personal fulfillment it provides (Lanik, 2018; Van den Broeck et al., 2021).
- Extrinsic rewards are externally-driven, provided by outside entities to motivate or incentivize certain behaviors or achievements. While they can effectively drive motivation and performance in the short term, they may not foster long-term engagement or personal satisfaction to the same extent as intrinsic rewards. Nevertheless, they can be extremely motivating, especially in the short-term (Lanik, 2018; Van den Broeck et al., 2021).
See Also: Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation
Examples of Extrinsic Rewards
Extrinsic Rewards in the Workplace
- A Pay Raise
- A Promotion
- Additional Benefits Packages
- Flexible Hours
- Vacation Time
- Bonuses and Cash Rewards
- Recognition Awards
- Training and Development Opportunities
- Team outings or social events
- Employee referral bonuses and perks
- Casual dress days
- Parking spot privileges
Extrinsic Rewards in the Classroom
- Stickers and Stamps
- Praise and Verbal Recognition
- Certificates or Trophies
- Extra Playtime
- Tokens or Points System (see: Token Economy)
- Small Toys or Trinkets
- Special Outings
- Special Privileges
- Free Computer Time
- Movie or game night
- Extra screen time
- Choice of dinner menu
- Homework pass
- Sleepover with friends
Types of Extrinsic Rewards
Several types of rewards that could be provided as intrinsic motivators include:
- Contingent Reinforcements: These rewards are given only after a specific behavior is demonstrated or a certain goal is achieved. We may be familiar with these through contingency contracts (aka behavioral contracts), where someone is promised a reward after completing a task (Alwahbi, 2020). Take, for example, the Premack Principle, where a person is asked to complete an undesirable task (e.g. eating your vegetables) with the promise that, afterward, they will get a treat (dessert).
- Non-contingent Reinforcements: These are given without being tied to specific behaviors or outcomes, often just for participation or attendance (Luis, Leon & Campos, 2021). While often balked at as ‘participation trophies’, they serve their place in maintaining consistent positive behaviors with the knowledge that you’re treated well. In other words, non-contingent rewards earn goodwill between, for example, an employer and employee.
- Competitive Reinforcements: These rewards are distributed in a competitive setting where individuals or groups compete against each other to earn the reward. For example, the winner might be given $100, second place $50, and third place $10. These often generate significant effort on behalf of those seeking rewards, while requiring minimal effort or outlay on behalf of the reward giver.
We can also classify reward systems based on how regularly the rewards are provided. B.F. Skinner (1965), a famous operant conditioning psychologist, came up with four ‘reinforcement schedules‘:
- Fixed Ratio (FR) Schedule: A fixed ratio schedule rewards individuals after a specified number of responses or actions are completed. This creates a high rate of response as individuals know that after completing the set number of actions, they will receive a reward.
- Fixed Interval (FI) Schedule: Under a fixed interval schedule, rewards are given after a specified amount of time has passed since the last reward, regardless of how many actions are completed. This often leads to individuals increasing their rate of response as the time for the next reward approaches.
- Variable Ratio (VR) Schedule: A variable ratio schedule provides rewards after an unpredictable number of responses, with the number changing after each reward. This creates a steady, high rate of response as individuals are motivated by the uncertainty of when the next reward will come.
- Variable Interval (VI) Schedule: In a variable interval schedule, rewards are given after an unpredictable amount of time has passed since the last reward. This schedule often leads to a steady rate of response as individuals are unsure when the next reward will be delivered, keeping them engaged over time.
Benefits Of Extrinsic Rewards
Benefits of extrinsic rewards include rapid behavior acquisition, explicit rules of engagement, and the acquisition of goal-oriented behaviors.
These benefits are summarized below:
- Explicit Rules of Engagement: Autism therapists have found that extrinsic rewards work best with children with autism, as used in the Applied Behavior Analysis method. Such children often struggle with subtle social cues and, instead, need explicit instructions, rules, and consequences, to fully understand the “rules of engagement” (Radley & Dart, 2021). Extrinsic reinforcement methods offer them this certainty.
- Goal-Oriented Behavior: Whereas intrinsic motivation tends to be focused on the task and the process, extrinsic motivators put a focus on achieving goals, such as task completion or meeting key performance indicators. As a result, they tend to focus the mind on specific goals, allowing individuals and organizations to set a direct path toward success (French et al., 2011).
- Rapid Behavior Acquisition: An extrinsic motivator tends to lead to rapid behavior acquisition known as an extinction burst, meaning behavioral change can occur very quickly. This is particularly true in the case of ratio schedules, where rewards are provided after a predefined number of instances of a behavior (Gray, 2007). Subjects tend to race toward the next reward milestone, leading to rapid acquisition (see image below).
Limitations Of Extrinsic Rewards
Despite the clear benefits, significant scholarly literature has demonstrated that task incentivization has negative effects and, in many situations, is not desirable.
Chief criticisms include:
- Rapid Behavior Loss: After rewards are removed or contracts completed, the motivation to continue the behavior is lost, leading to rapid extinction of the desired behavior (Morgan, 2010). This means that they may be better for short-term goals rather than long-term goals.
- Habituation: Over time, the effects of the reward can subside, meaning people are less inclined to engage in the same behavior for the same reward (Rankin et al., 2009). This may require you to switch-up rewards, or, switch-up behavioral expectations.
- Alignment: Different people respond to different rewards, so finding the ideal reward is necessary. There needs to be an alignment of the reward with the desires of the individual. For example, a child may be highly motivated by a sticker, but an adult would not. It may take time to find the reward that motivates the individual into action. In the workplace, this may require the employer or HR department to conduct surveys to find out what employees want.
- Decreased Intrinsic Desire: Research has consistently found an inverse relationship between the provision of external rewards and intrinsic motivation (for a metanalysis, see: Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999). Providing rewards may unintentionally cause people to dislike the task, and lose interest in it. Many people, for example, say they don’t want to turn their hobby into a job: they would lose the love of the hobby if it were tied to incentives!
Theoretical Link: Self-Determination Theory
The most influential motivation theorists in recent decades have been Ryan and Deci (2000), who coined the Self-Determination Theory. These theorists proposed that motivation sits along a spectrum of regulatory styles:
Here are the six stages, from least to most desirable:
- Non-Regulation: You do not attempt to do a task as you have no motivation.
- External Regulation: You do a task for a reward or punishment.
- Introjected Regulation: You do a task because it boosts your ego.
- Identified Regulation: You do a task because it makes you feel better.
- Integrated Regulation: You do a task because you believe it’s right to do.
- Intrinsic Regulation: You do a task for the personal satisfaction of doing it.
|Regulatory Style||Non-Regulation||External Regulation||Introjected Regulation||Identified Regulation||Integrated Regulation||Intrinsic Regulation|
|Type of Motivation||Amotivation||Extrinsic Motivation||Extrinsic Motivation||Extrinsic Motivation||Extrinsic Motivation||Intrinsic Motivation|
|Source of Motivation||Impersonal||External||Somewhat External||Somewhat Internal||Internal||Internal|
|Motivation Regulator||Lack of Control, Disinterest||Rewards and Punishments||Ego, Self-Reward, Self-Punishment||Sense of Personal Importance||Personal Identity, Sense of Obligation||Interest, Enjoyment, Satisfaction|
You may notice that external rewards sit low on this list. In other words, Ryan and Deci (2000) are adamant that external motivators are effective but not ideal. Instead, we should work toward moving further up the spectrum of regulators, attempting to find ways to do tasks out of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.
Rewards and recognition act as important external motivators in a range of settings. In the workforce, they help to motivate employees, improve employee engagement, put a focus on meeting deadlines, reward work of a high standard, improve employee productivity, and even attract and retain top talent into an organization. They can motivate and inspire employees, but research shows that external motivation may, at times, unintentionally decrease job satisfaction by decreasing intrinsic motivation.
Similarly, in a classroom environment, an incentive for good behavior or high standards of work can help children to take initiative, work harder, and feel motivated to put in extra effort. But by focusing solely on providing something tangible for hard work, we may unintentionally forget to intrinsically motivate our students. It is, of course, ideal to try to have children learn for the intrinsic love of learning!
Alwahbi, A. (2020). The Use of Contingency Contracting in Educational Settings: A Review of the Literature. Educational Research and Reviews, 15(6), 327-335. (Source)
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627. (Source)
French, R., Rayner, C., Rees, G., & Rumbles, S. (2011). Organizational Behavior. New York: Wiley.
Gray, P. (2007). Psychology (6th ed.). Worth Publishers, NY.
Lanik, M. (2018). The Leader Habit Master the Skills You Need to Lead-in Just Minutes a Day. AMACOM.
Luis, J., Leon, Y., & Campos, C. (2021). Further evaluation of noncontingent reinforcement to treat mealtime problem behavior. Behavioral Interventions, 36(2), 514-521. (Source)
Morgan, D. L. (2010). Schedules of reinforcement at 50: A retrospective appreciation. The Psychological Record, 60, 151–172. (Source)
Radley, K. C., & Dart, E. H. (2021). Social Skills Teaching for Individuals with Autism: Integrating Research Into Practice. Springer International Publishing.
Rankin, C. H., Abrams, T., Barry, R. J., Bhatnagar, S., Clayton, D. F., Colombo, J., … & Thompson, R. F. (2009). Habituation revisited: An updated and revised description of the behavioral characteristics of habituation. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 92(2), 135-138. (Source)
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67. (Source)
Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.
Van den Broeck, A., Howard, J. L., Van Vaerenbergh, Y., Leroy, H., & Gagné, M. (2021). Beyond intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis on self-determination theory’s multidimensional conceptualization of work motivation. Organizational Psychology Review, 11(3), 240-273. (Source)
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]