Politics & Society

What Is Extrinsic Motivation? Understanding How and When to Use Extrinsic Rewards for Yourself and Others

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 2 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.

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What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is being motivated by external factors (also called extrinsic rewards), such as receiving a reward or avoiding punishment. This is in contrast with intrinsic motivation, in which you are motivated by an internal desire like enjoyment or satisfaction.

Extrinsic motivation means that the person is doing the task not because they enjoy it, but because they expect to get something out of it. In this theory of motivation, extrinsic motivation is not characterized by self-determination but by pressure, obligation, or restraint.

There are many different types of extrinsic rewards. The most obvious are tangible rewards, like earning a paycheck or receiving discounts in a loyalty program, but there are also plenty of intangible rewards that are extrinsic motivators, such as praise or public recognition.

How Does Extrinsic Motivation Work?

Extrinsic motivation is the best motivation for a very specific situation: when you have no personal interest in a task you need to get done. Take, for example, an auto mechanic who goes to work not because they find working on cars interesting (which would be internal motivation) but because they want a paycheck so they can pay rent and other bills (an external reward). In this situation, even though the auto mechanic doesn’t enjoy their job, they will still go to work every day because of the extrinsic motivation of receiving a reward.

When to Engage and Use Extrinsic Motivation

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.

The 2 Limits of Extrinsic Motivation

  1. The overjustification effect. This occurs when someone already intrinsically motivated to do a task is given an extrinsic motivation, and their intrinsic motivation diminishes. For instance, if a person loved working on cars in their spare time (which would be intrinsic motivation), and then they got a job working as an auto mechanic and started receiving a paycheck (which is an extrinsic factor), something would happen: the auto mechanic’s intrinsic motivation would diminish. In other words, they would feel less interested in working on cars because they enjoy it, and they would instead value the paycheck the most. In this way, adding extrinsic motivation to a task you’re already intrinsically motivated to do can undermine your original interest in it.
  2. Long-term instability. Extrinsic motivation is unsustainable in the long run if it’s the sole motivator. If an auto mechanic disliked working on cars but went to work only for the paycheck, they would eventually feel exhausted and unfulfilled. It would be difficult for them to continue going to work, especially compared to an auto mechanic who enjoyed working on cars. Thus, extrinsic motivators are usually not strong enough to last in the long run.

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