Extrinsic motivation can be an effective method of persuasion when used in moderation.
We’ve all been motivated by external rewards at some point in our lives — from getting stickers for successful potty training as a kid to participating in a survey in exchange for a gift card as an adult.
Whatever incentives you’ve been driven by, this type of reward-based behavior is referred to as extrinsic motivation. It’s a psychological concept that can promote positive outcomes.
The theory of extrinsic motivation suggests that an individual is recognized for their positive behavior or effort with a reward.
This reward can be either tangible (something physical, like money or gold stars) or intangible (something psychological, like praise or encouragement).
Extrinsic motivation is a form of operant conditioning. This is when a new behavior is learned by the consequence of another behavior.
As such, extrinsic motivation is a learning tool to help people achieve desired behaviors. Similar to classical conditioning, you can use operant conditioning to teach someone how to avoid negative consequences.
Extrinsic motivation works by stimulating the brain’s reward system. This triggers a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine once the desired behavior is completed and the reward is attained.
While it can be an effective parenting tactic, extrinsic motivation extends to individuals of all ages.
Here are some examples:
- A young child who eats vegetables is rewarded with dessert.
- A college student who earns good grades can keep their athletic scholarship.
- A professional adult who goes above and beyond what’s required for their job receives a promotion.
By definition, extrinsic motivation uses external factors to encourage behavior.
Intrinsic motivation is also reward-driven, but it’s based on internal gratification versus external recognition.
For example, if cooking provides you with a deep sense of satisfaction, you’re intrinsically rewarded by your desire to cook your own meals. Intrinsic motivation is driving your impulse to cook because you find the activity of cooking personally fulfilling.
On the flip side, if you cook because you typically receive praise from others about how great your cooking is, you could be extrinsically motivated to cook, since acknowledgment from others makes you feel good about yourself and gives you a self-esteem boost.
The external recognition you receive elicits a positive psychological response in your brain’s reward system, even though praise itself is not a tangible reward.
Tangible rewards are physical, while intangible rewards are psychological.
Examples of intangible rewards include:
- A child shares their toys with a classmate to avoid a fight, which could lead to punishment.
- An aspiring playwright who yearns for recognition receives praise and accolades for their latest production.
Examples of tangible rewards include:
- An adolescent who completes their household chores for the week fulfills the bargain of earning their agreed upon screen time.
- A restaurant employee picks up additional shifts at work to make extra money to pay their bills.
- An older adult makes substantial changes to their diet and exercise regimens on the advice of their doctor and becomes physically healthier as a result.
A review study from 2014 indicates that extrinsic motivation can be an effective tool in many everyday situations. The researchers suggest that while extrinsic motivation can produce a negative outcome in some very specific situations, the rewards themselves are generally not considered harmful.
Everyone is motivated differently, which means that extrinsic motivation may not always be the best method of persuasion for every individual.
In fact, with too much extrinsic motivation, some people may become encouraged only by the prospect of a reward. Older research from 1973 posited that excessive extrinsic rewards can actually lead to a decrease in your motivation to earn them.
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of extrinsic motivation and when intrinsic motivation might offer a more meaningful outcome.
Extrinsic motivation can lead to positive behavioral changes and help boost productivity in the classroom and workplace.
While there is limited research on the effects of extrinsic motivation specifically, many studies examine the effects of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.
For instance, a 2020 study suggests that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can improve memory and attention. The researchers found that monetary-driven performance (extrinsic) filtered out irrelevant tasks, while curiosity-driven performance (intrinsic) led to a state of heightened attention.
In addition, research from 2019 found that subjects who participated in community gardening were extrinsically motivated by a sense of responsibility and enhanced community. Subjects were also intrinsically motivated by an improvement in their mental well-being.
While extrinsic motivation can create positive changes in children and adults alike, the behavior itself is often devoid of passion.
Whether an individual is motivated by rewards such as an extended curfew, their first smartphone, or money, it could mean they’re engaging in certain positive behaviors and activities only to reap their desired rewards.
In some cases, if someone is motivated only by external rewards, they may just do the bare minimum to receive the reward — the primary source of their desire.
Over time, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect can actually start to decrease an individual’s motivation to behave in a certain way as the reward starts to lose its luster.
For instance, a
When a person is intrinsically motivated, however, they’re more likely to perform well or behave in a positive manner if they’re truly invested in the activity itself, since it provides them with a sense of agency and purpose.
Extrinsic motivation can help to encourage positive behaviors in children, but it can also backfire.
When a child is always rewarded for their good behavior or when they complete a certain task, they might come to expect to always get an external reward for their positive efforts.
Intrinsic motivation can be more effective in the long run, since it encourages children to engage in an activity they find personally rewarding.
When children realize that personal satisfaction can feel just as good as getting to stay up an hour later or have an extra scoop of ice cream, they may begin to realize there are other things in life that bring them a sense of pleasure and satisfaction than physical rewards.
Eventually, they may even start to change some of their behaviors on their own.
Extrinsic motivation can be a useful strategy to complete a task or meet your academic, personal, or professional goals.
But even if you’re motivated by physical rewards (a paycheck) or psychological rewards (praise or recognition), remember that intrinsic motivation is still considered an ideal motivator for the long term.
If you’re using extrinsic motivation to motivate someone else, start by making sure the reward you’re offering is something they’ll be motivated by. Keep in mind that when trying extrinsic motivation with a child, you’ll want to do so in moderation to avoid the overjustification effect.
Nurturing your child’s interests can teach them intrinsic motivation and help them start to hone their passions and become more self-assured. There’s even a chance they might start to receive external praise for pursuing their passions by virtue of their self-directed motivations.