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What Is the Difference Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation?



Extrinsic motivation involves doing things to gain outside rewards.

Image: Franz Diwischek

Intrinsic motivation involves doing things because we find them enjoyable and rewarding for their own sake.

Image: Leszek Nowak

Question: What Is the Difference Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation?

Why do we do the things we do? What is it the drives our behaviors? Psychologists have proposed a number of different ways of thinking about motivation, including one method that involves looking at whether motivation arises from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) the individual.

What exactly do we mean when we say extrinsic or intrinsic motivation?


Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity in order to earn a reward or avoid a punishment.

Examples of behaviors that are the result of extrinsic motivation include:

  • Studying because you want to get a good grade
  • Cleaning your room to avoid being reprimanded by your parents
  • Participating in a sport in order to win awards
  • Competing in a contest in order to win a scholarship

In each of these examples, the behavior is motivated by a desire to gain a reward or avoid a negative outcome.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially, performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward.

Examples of behaviors that are the result of intrinsic motivation include:

  • Participating in a sport because you find the activity enjoyable
  • Solving a word puzzle because you find the challenge fun and interesting
  • Playing a game because you find it exciting

In each of these instances, the person's behavior is motivated by an internal desire to participate in an activity for its own sake.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: Which Is Best?

So, the primary difference between the two types of motivation is that extrinsic motivation arises from outside of the individual while intrinsic motivation arises from within. Researchers have also found that the two type of motivation can differ in how effective they are at driving behavior.

A number of studies have demonstrated that offering excessive external rewards for an already internally rewarding behavior can actually lead to a reduction in intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect. In one study, for example, children who were rewarded for playing with a toy they had already expressed interest in playing with became less interested in the item after being externally rewarded.

Extrinsic motivation can be beneficial in a number of situations, however:

  • External rewards can induce interest and participation in something the individual had no initial interest in.

  • Extrinsic rewards can be used to motivate people to acquire new skills or knowledge. Once these initial skills have been acquired, people may then become more intrinsically motivated to pursue the activity.

  • External rewards can also be a source of feedback, allowing people to know when their performance has achieved a standard deserving of reinforcement.

Extrinsic motivators should be avoided in situations where:

  • The individual already finds the activity intrinsically rewarding

  • Offering a reward might make a "play" activity seem more like "work"

While most people would suggest that intrinsic motivation is best, it is not always possible in each and every situation. In some cases, people simply have no internal desire to engage in an activity. Excessive rewards may be problematic, but when used appropriately, extrinsic motivators can be a useful tool. For example, extrinsic motivation can be used to get people to complete a work task or school assignment in which they have no internal interest.

Researchers have arrived at three major conclusions with regards to extrinsic rewards and their influence on intrinsic motivation:

  1. Unexpected external rewards typically do not decrease intrinsic motivation. For example, if you get good grade on a test because you enjoy learning about the subject and the teacher decides to reward you with a gift card to your favorite pizza place, your underlying motivation for learning about the subject will not be affected. However, this needs to be done with caution, because people will sometimes come to expect such rewards.

  2. Praise can help increase internal motivation. Researchers have found that offering positive praise and feedback when people do something better in comparison to others can actually improve intrinsic motivation.

  3. Intrinsic motivation will decrease, however, when external rewards are given for completing a specific task or only doing minimal work. For example, if parents heap lavish praise on their child every time he completes a simple task, he will become less intrinsically motivated to perform that task in the future.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can also play an important role in learning settings. Some experts argue that the traditional emphasis on external rewards such as grades, report cards, and gold stars undermines any existing intrinsic motivation that students might have. Others suggest that these extrinsic motivators help students feel more competent in the classroom, thus enhancing intrinsic motivation.

"A person's interest often survives when a reward is used neither to bribe nor to control but to signal a job well done, as in a "most improved player" award. If a reward boosts your feeling of competence after doing good work, your enjoyment of the task may increase. Rewards, rightly administered, can motivate high performance and creativity. And extrinsic rewards (such as scholarships, admissions, and jobs that often follow good grades) are here to stay," explains David G. Meyers in his text Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules.

As you have seen, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation are both important ways of driving behavior. In order to comprehend how these can be best utilized, it is important to understand some of the key differences between the two types of motivation including the overall impact that each can have on behavior.

Learn more about motivation:


Plotnik, R. & Kouyoumjian. H. (2011). Introduction to psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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