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Neuromyth: Intrinsic Motivation is Driven by External Reward

One of the best motivators to learn is personal satisfaction.[1] But where does this internal drive come from? Many believe that students are motivated to learn because of what the people around them do, called extrinsic motivation.

Starting in the 1970s, it was popular to believe the key to success lay within the now famous self- esteem movement.[2] This has proved, to a certain extent, to be validated by more recent research: A person’s own belief in his or her ability to learn actually influences learning outcomes.[3] What has not panned out in the research is the belief that the development of positive self-esteem in children depends upon praise and positive reinforcements from adults and peers. So, what does makes a child believe in herself?

In a very mistaken interpretation of the research, teachers began giving children stickers and rewards for everything they did to “boost their self-esteem.” This misguided practice not only led to disingenuous acts of rewarding kids for simply fulfilling basic expectations (“You followed the instructions? Congratulations! Here’s your sticker.” “You didn’t get into a fight today? Congratulations! Here’s your sticker.”), but also delegitimized sincere feedback and praise for effortful improvement. This operant conditioning thinking led to a revival of external rewards to get kids to do things in schools, which in turn led to the eventual understanding that intrinsic motivation is not always driven by external reward. (The more than 7,500 teacher resources for sticker rewards options on alone indicate how many teachers have been persuaded that giving out stickers will keep kids on track.)

External rewards can take many forms, including positive praise and feedback, tangible rewards (such as a sticker, candy, money, or praise from parents or peers) or pressures (being tape-recorded or watched to be sure you comply or fined for bad behavior).[4] People can be extrinsically motivated in introjected fashions, such as going to school because of societal or cultural expectations, but the best way to instill motivation is through positive intrinsic forces (resolving a real-life problem of personal interest, learning to play music for the pleasure it gives, or being allowed to choose how and why to approach an assignment)[5] as this is the only way to assure potential transfer or future use of the learned competency.

Where the Myth Comes From

Many teachers believe their sole job is to keep kids motivated and on task, as reflected in numerous teacher guides (Motivating Students Who Don’t Care: Successful Techniques for Educators;[6] Practical & Easy Ways to Motivate Your Students (A+ Teacher Idea Book); [7] 50 Quick Ways to Motivate and Engage Your Students[8]). While it is true that students perceive a teacher’s own level of motivation through social contagion,[9] it is not true that rewards— or punishments— need to be connected to the student-teacher relationship. It would be simpler to believe that teachers held all the bargaining chips for motivation in their own actions, but this is not true.

Every student comes to class with a lot of personal baggage; his own motivation for schoolwork is influenced not only by what the teacher does, but also by what his past experience has been with the subject, what he ate (or didn’t eat) for breakfast, his relationships with his parents and peers, and how much he slept (or didn’t) the night before, among a host of other factors. Motivation is not as simple as offering a reward. Teachers need to better understand the complex mechanisms of motivation to better leverage their role in student learning. While the teacher is the determining factor in establishing the right learning environment by demonstrating his or her enthusiasm for the subject matter and genuine concern for the students,[10] external rewards are not necessarily part of the magic formula to guarantee student motivation.

What We Know Now

We now know that autonomous motivation, or intrinsic structures for motivation, are much more powerfully associated with positive self-concept and academic achievement than external rewards.[11] In a sense, being an autonomous learner is its own reward. Self-determination theory tries to unite the best ways of using external motivators for intrinsic motivation, and suggests that teachers leverage the balance between what they can do for the students and what the students must do for themselves.[12]

In school-age populations, it is clear that punitive, externally driven motivators are associated with lower levels of intrinsic motivation for things like prosocial behavior, meaning that they are less desirable than intrinsic motivators.[13] Bear and colleagues’ research showed that helping students find their own intrinsic motivators— taking them on a walk and having them identify problems in their neighborhood they want to resolve and celebrating their success with them, for example— is more powerful than just supplying external praise.

According to Augustyniak and colleagues’ article, “Intrinsic Motivation: An Overlooked Component for Student Success,” Students with greater levels of intrinsic motivation demonstrate strong conceptual learning, improved memory, and high overall achievement in school.[14] These students are more likely to experience a state of deep task immersion and peak performance.[15] Studies have also shown that students with higher intrinsic motivation are also more persistent.[16] In fact, intrinsic motivation is a powerful factor in performance, persistence to learn, and productivity.[17]

Clearly, intrinsic motivation is effective in spurring student achievement. But perhaps most important of all, the research clarifies that the teacher’s role is confined to creating the circumstances under which the best learning occurs, rather than providing rewards themselves. Students need to learn to identify their own motivators, rather than relying on teachers for motivation.

[1] Cerasoli, Nicklin & Ford, 2014

[2] Briggs, 1975

[3] Hattie, 2012; 2015

[4] Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999; Lepper, Henderlong & Gingras, 1999

[5] Cerasoli, Nicklin & Ford, 2014

[6] Mendler, 2009

[7] Gruber & Gruber, 2002

[8] Gershon, 2015

[9] Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain & Wild, 2010

[10] Hattie, 2012

[11] Emmanuel, Adam, Josephine & Solomon, 2014

[12] Ryan & Deci, 2016

[13] Bear, Slaughter, Mantz & Farley-Ripple, 2017

[14] Gotfried, 1990

[15] Shernoff, Abdi, Anderson & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014; Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Schneider & Shernoff, 2003

[16] Hardre & Reeve, 2003; Vallerand, Pelletier, Blais, Briere, Senecal & Vallieres, 1992

[17] Grant, 2008; Augustyniak, Ables, Guilford, Lujan, Cortright & DiCarlo, 2016, p. 465

Neuromyth: Intrinsic Motivation is Driven by External Reward

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Excerpted from Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas About the Brain © 2018 by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. All rights reserved.

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Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Ph.D.

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, PhD, is a Professor at Harvard University's Extension School and is currently an educational researcher affiliated with the Latin American Social Science Research Faculty (FLACSO) in Quito, Ecuador. She is also the founder of Connections: The Learning Sciences Platform, and an Associate Editor of the Nature Partner Journal, Science of Learning. Tracey has taught Kindergarten through University and works with schools, universities, governments and NGOs in more than 40 countries around the world.

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APA Reference
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2019). Neuromyth: Intrinsic Motivation is Driven by External Reward. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
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Last updated: 18 Mar 2019 (Originally: 19 Mar 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Mar 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.