Politics & Society

Understanding the Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: How to Balance Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 3 min read

What gets us out of bed in the morning? What gets us to work? What gets us to do our hobbies? There are many theories of motivation, and one popular theory is called self-determination theory, which describes two types of motivation—extrinsic and intrinsic—that both function in our lives on a regular basis.


What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is when you are motivated by external factors, such as receiving a reward or avoiding punishment. Extrinsic motivation functions even if the task is still valuable to the person doing it—it just means that the person is doing the task not because they enjoy it, but because they expect to get something out of it. The most obvious extrinsic rewards are tangible rewards, like earning a paycheck or a good grade, but there are also plenty of intangible ones, such as praise or public recognition.

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is when you are motivated by internal factors, such as enjoyment of the activity. Those who are intrinsically motivated to do the task or activity for its own sake, not for any reward. The most common intrinsic motivators are enjoyment, interest, or viewing the activity as an opportunity to grow and learn new skills. Doing intrinsically motivated activities contributes to your self-esteem and sense of well-being.

What Is the Difference Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation?

The most obvious difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is where the motivation is coming from—externally or internally. But beyond that, there are two significant differences in the outcomes of both motivations.

  • Longevity. While extrinsic motivation can be useful, it can get exhausting in the long run if it’s the only motivator for a task. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is much longer lasting.
  • Satisfaction. Extrinsic motivation offers rewards that can satisfy. For internal motivation, the activity itself is the satisfaction. In this way, intrinsic motivators contribute to a person’s overall sense of well-being, and they are more satisfying than extrinsic motivators.

Extrinsic Motivation: How and When to Engage It

Extrinsic motivation is easy to engage in any situation, because it’s easy to give yourself or others external rewards—anything from treats to paycheck bonuses—for completing tasks.

There are certain situations in which extrinsic motivation is a great way to achieve goals, such as:

  • To complete short-term tasks you don’t like. An external reward for undesirable tasks is a great way to motivate yourself for short tasks—like doing a chore such as sweeping or washing windows.
  • To encourage others to increase production. Managers will use raises and bonuses as external motivators for employees to work harder. However, extrinsic motivators only go so far, and to increase the quality of work, increasing the employees’ intrinsic motivations is much more effective.

There are also situations where extrinsic motivation is not as effective, or can even be detrimental, such as:

  • To complete long-term tasks. Avoid relying on extrinsic motivation for long-term tasks, because you can quickly become exhausted. For instance, being exclusively extrinsically motivated to go to work every day will eventually become unsustainable, because extrinsic motivation usually isn’t enough in long-term situations.
  • To do things you’re already intrinsically motivated to do. Extrinsic motivation can affect your intrinsic motivation. This is called the “overjustification effect,” where adding extrinsic motivation to a task you’re already intrinsically motivated to do can undermine your original interest in it, and your interest or enjoyment will diminish or even disappear completely.

Intrinsic Motivation: How and When to Engage It

It’s difficult to intrinsically motivate yourself or others, because intrinsic rewards are internal and personal. However, there are several factors that social-psychology researchers have found can help you create an intrinsically motivating environment for yourself, including appealing to your own curiosity, putting yourself in control of the task and how you do it, and making it a challenge to overcome.

Intrinsic motivation is considered more powerful than extrinsic, so there aren’t any situations in which it should be discouraged. There are, however, specific situations in which it can be most useful:

  • To apply yourself to long-term commitments. Intrinsic motivation is key for any long-term commitments, especially if you don’t enjoy what it is you’re doing—with only extrinsic motivation, you’ll eventually become exhausted. For instance, if you discover you’re only extrinsically motivated by a paycheck to work, try to increase your intrinsic motivation by focusing on things you like about the job, exercising more control over the process, or thinking of it as a challenge to accomplish.
  • To encourage others to increase their work quality. Intrinsic motivation allows workers to take ownership over their performance and derive a sense of personal satisfaction from it. To encourage others to be intrinsically motivated, try giving them more control over the process or encouraging them to focus on the things they like about the job.

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