What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 24, 2022

Do you go to work every day because you simply love your job? Or, like a lot of people, are you clocking in to earn your salary and benefits package? 

If you wouldn’t do your job for free, you’re likely motivated by external factors to complete your duties. Learn more about this extrinsic motivation, how it differs from intrinsic motivation, and whether or not one type is better than the other.

In psychological terms, “motivation” describes the reason behind pursuing behavior that is goal-oriented. This term can refer to both human and animal behavior, it can be surprisingly simple or complex, and it can encompass physical, emotional, or mental needs

Take a look at these scenarios that illustrate different motivations:

  • A little boy asks his mother for a glass of water (his motivation is thirst).
  • An employee puts in extra work hours to get a bonus at the end of the quarter (her motivation is money).
  • A college student takes an extra class because he loves to play the violin (his motivation is to learn more about music).

Motivation implies that someone is doing something for the purpose of getting a reward. Where your motivation comes from matters, too — and this is where extrinsic and intrinsic motivation come into play. Simply put, extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from outside of yourself, while intrinsic motivation comes from within. 

In a lot of ways, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are complete opposites, but this doesn’t mean that they never occur together. It’s possible to act in a way that’s guided by both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. For example, you might sign up for a Japanese language course because you’ve always wanted to study the language but also because you’re taking the class to gain the three credits you need to graduate.

Extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is a system of rewards and punishments that serve as feedback from the outside world. When you’re extrinsically motivated, you might be avoiding a negative outcome (like losing a job or facing punishment by a parent) or pursuing a positive one (like a higher salary or more social media attention). Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily weaker than intrinsic motivation, but it can be in certain cases.

Intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation starts with an interest in a subject or activity. It boosts your self-confidence, sense of direction in life, and the feeling of making a difference in the world. This type of motivation leads to increased creativity and autonomy, and it may help you feel connected to what you’re doing in a way that extrinsic motivation can’t.

People who are intrinsically motivated may simply love to learn, create new businesses, or help others when they’re in need. You can probably think of two or three things that you’re intrinsically motivated to do. This type of motivation helps you pay attention and pursue tasks that are inherently interesting to you. 

Intrinsic motivation isn’t always better than extrinsic motivation, though, because when your interest dries up, so might your ability to perform the required tasks.

Extrinsic motivation revolves around more than just money — and intrinsic motivation can factor in even if you’re given external rewards. Many scenarios involve both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. 

For example, telling a child that she is doing a great job in art class may bolster her confidence and increase her intrinsic motivation to keep drawing. She’s also getting an extrinsic reward at the same time: praise. 

Consider these extrinsic motivation examples to make more sense of the concept:

Financial compensation. It’s not a secret that many people work primarily for money, and what intrinsically motivates one person to pursue an occupation might serve as another person’s extrinsic motivation. For example, one individual may pursue a job as a full-time professor because she has an intrinsic desire to teach, while her friend might only teach to earn a salary while he works on his novel.

Social and emotional benefits. Extrinsic reinforcement can go a long way toward helping a child change bad behavior patterns, ensuring that a student is doing a great job in a tough college course, and even motivating employees to be more engaged at work. 

It can, and it often does when what you do for fun becomes your work. Think of a performer suffering from burnout when her audience expects her to sing to the best of her ability every night, or a researcher who no longer finds joy in new discoveries. These individuals may be struggling with the fact that their motivation for their work — which was originally intrinsic and motivated by the love of singing and learning, respectively — has become a paid job. 

Getting extrinsic rewards for an activity, even when you’re already intrinsically motivated to do it, may change how you think of and approach the activity. It doesn’t always have to end in burnout if you were originally motivated by something internal, though. These two types of motivation can exist together. 

It’s common to hear of extrinsic motivation referenced in the same breath as education. Many educators assume that students do best when they are intrinsically motivated to learn. While this is often true, especially for students in elementary school, extrinsic rewards can be very motivating, especially if someone is already bored with the subject they’re supposed to study.

Cultural factors often play into the type of motivation that works best for students, as well. For example, a long-term study in China found that students were not hurt by extrinsic motivation, and the external rewards actually boosted their performance in school.

The researchers of this study thought that in China — where it’s seen as children’s duty to their parents and society to become educated adults — extrinsic motivation was just as much a part of learning as intrinsic motivation. In contrast, in Western society, educators are more likely to push for intrinsic motivation and learning for learning’s sake.

There isn’t one “right” type of motivation. Extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation simply serve different purposes in life. Activities that boost intrinsic motivation are great for tasks that involve learning.  

Extrinsic motivation, though, can help you complete your daily responsibilities and get through difficult days at work or school. Most people aren’t intrinsically motivated by paying bills, taking out the trash, or waking up at five o’clock in the morning to catch a flight for work. You can’t run on intrinsic motivation forever, and at some point, you’ll turn to external motivators to do the things you don’t intrinsically enjoy. 

Show Sources


American Psychological Association: “Extrinsic Motivation,” “Intrinsic Motivation,” Motivation.”

Contemporary Educational Psychology. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.”

Journal of Personality: “Multiplicative effect of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on academic performance: A longitudinal study of Chinese students.”

The Ohio State University: “The Science of Motivation.” 

Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board: “Motivation.”

Waterford: “Strategies for Motivating Students: Start with Intrinsic Motivation.”

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