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What is Extrinsic Motivation and How Does it Work?

We often do things for reasons other than pure enjoyment, i.e., we are motivated extrinsically. Find out what extrinsic motivation is, why it’s different from its intrinsic counterpart, and how to best use it.

Boy washes dishes while thinking about money and ipad - extrinsic motivation

What Is Motivation

Motivation is the underlying reasons, drives, and desires that give rise to human behavior. It stimulates us to take action to reach our goals.

People take action for different reasons. Psychologists categorize motivation into two types: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.

What is Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to doing something not for its inherent enjoyment, but for a separable outcome, such as receiving rewards or avoiding punishment.

Very often, we do things not because we enjoy them, but because they are necessary or we want to obtain something else. When this happens, we are extrinsically motivated to do so.

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation

There are many examples of extrinsic motivation around us.

  • A student studies to please the parents.
  • A child takes on chores to get an extra allowance.
  • Workers put in overtime to earn a bonus.

These are all examples of extrinsic motivation because the motivators are not the activity’s innate enjoyment or satisfaction.

Girl smiles and reads book - differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic Motivation Can Involve Internal or External Rewards

Intrinsic motivation is driven by intrinsic rewards.

Is extrinsic motivation caused by extrinsic rewards then?

Yes, but there’s more to it.

The discussion on motivation can sometimes be confusing. Sometimes extrinsic and external motivation are used interchangeably in the media and even in some academic publications.

But external and extrinsic are not synonymous in psychology. Neither are internal and intrinsic​1​.

Internal rewards come from within oneself, while external rewards originate from outside.

For example, if a child does homework to avoid punishment, the action is caused by an external source. And because he is doing it for a reason other than enjoyment, he is motivated extrinsically. This child is, therefore, motivated externally and extrinsically to do homework.

On the other hand, if a child studies because he wants to get good grades so that he can later go to college, then his drive is internally produced. But since he doesn’t do the homework for its own enjoyment, he is extrinsically motivated. In this case, the child is internally and extrinsically motivated.

Therefore, while intrinsic motivation is driven by internal rewards, extrinsic motivation can be generated by internal or external rewards.

To avoid confusion, we can refer to internal rewards as psychological rewards and external rewards as tangible rewards.

Tangible rewards, such as prizes, always result in extrinsic motivation.

But psychological rewards can result in intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Some psychological rewards, such as a sense of enjoyment, create intrinsic motivation. Other psychological rewards, such as wanting to go to college, create extrinsic motivation.

Man and Woman play video game together - what is extrinsic motivation

Mixing Extrinsic Motivation with Intrinsic Motivation Can Backfire

One of the most common ways to motivate is to offer external rewards. However, researchers have found that attempts to increase extrinsic motivations can sometimes backfire.

In a classic experiment, psychologists offered some preschoolers who already showed interest in drawing with “magic markers” a reward for doing so. When these children were later allowed to play freely, they showed little interest in playing with the markers again. But the children who had not been rewarded continued to draw with the markers​2​.

When a person is already intrinsically motivated to do an activity, applying an extrinsic reward can decrease their intrinsic motivation. This is known as the overjustification effect​3​.

The Importance Of Extrinsic Motivation

Decades of research have shown that extrinsic motivation is often less desirable than intrinsic motivation. When people are extrinsically motivated, the quality of engagement, persistence, and creativity tend to be worse​​4​.

Not only can extrinsic motivation interfere with intrinsic motivation (overjustification effect), but it is also inferior when it comes to motivating someone.

Should we just forget about extrinsic motivation altogether?

Despite the drawbacks, extrinsic motivation is still important, especially in education and in the workplace.

Not every activity is enjoyable for everyone, and not everyone can be passionate about the same thing. Therefore, in the absence of intrinsic motivation, we rely on extrinsic motivation to get the job done.

Fortunately, there are four types of extrinsic motivation, and not all of them are created equal.

Group of people smile and put their hands together - types of extrinsic motivation

Four Types Of Extrinsic Motivation

According to Self-Determination Theory, the type of extrinsic motivation is different when the contextual factors are different.

Therefore, even when a person is not intrinsically motivated, you can still motivate them effectively, knowing which type of extrinsic motivation is at play.

Here are the four types of extrinsic motivation​5​:

1. External Regulation

External regulation means you do something to satisfy an external demand or receive an externally imposed reward.

An example would be a student who studies hard to get a good grade to receive a reward from his parents. Although the behavior is intentional, it is controlled by an external source. Then this action is externally regulated.

A person experiences an externally regulated behavior as controlled rather than autonomous.

External regulation is the least desirable type of extrinsic motivation and is typically used to contrast with intrinsic motivation.

2. Introjected Regulation

Introjection means taking in the cause of doing something but not fully accepting it.

An example would be a student who spends lots of time practicing piano for a recital because she believes if she doesn’t do well, she won’t play well, and others will look down on her.

This type of regulation is still perceived as controlled because introjected behavior is performed due to internal pressure to

  • reduce guilt or anxiety,
  • enhance ego or pride, or
  • maintain self-esteem or feeling of self-worth

Although the person has accepted the goal of the activity as necessary, and the intention is internal (psychological), it is still not experienced as a “free choice.”

Introjected motivation is still not a desired type of motivation because the action is controlled or coerced by internal contingencies rather than being self-directed.

3. Regulation Through Identification

This is a less controlling form of extrinsic motivation.

Identification means the person consciously values a goal and believes the activity is personally important. They don’t do it simply because they feel they should.

An example would be a student who studies very hard for the SAT exam because getting into college is important to him. Getting into college is a self-selected goal. Even though the behavior is extrinsically motivated, it is still relatively autonomous.

It would be different if a student does it because they think they “should” go to college like everyone else and will feel like a failure otherwise (introjected regulation), or because their parents are pressuring them to do so (external regulation).

4. Integrated Regulation

Integration occurs when one has fully taken in the reason for action, i.e., a person has examined the cause and found it compatible with their own values and needs. Then the action becomes self-initiated. It is autonomous and not controlled by an external cause​6​.

Despite being extrinsic, integrated motivation shares many similar qualities as intrinsic motivation and is the best type of extrinsic motivation. Some researchers even refer to integrated regulation as intrinsic because the person has completely internalized the extrinsic cause into their values.

When intrinsic motivation is not possible, integrated regulation is the next best option.

Man and woman jog together by the pier - extrinsic motivation examples

Best Ways To Motivate Extrinsically

The four types of extrinsic motivation lie on a spectrum of autonomy, from the least autonomous (externally regulated) to the most autonomous (integrated). 

To reach integrated regulation, one needs to believe in the goal of the activity and feel that they choose it freely​7​.

Two other factors that can lead to integrated regulation are​5​:   

  • competence – the ability to achieve success, and 
  • relatedness – the feeling of being connected to others.

Here are what you can do to motivate someone who doesn’t have an intrinsic drive:

1. Find Good Reasons

A person needs to believe in the value of an activity to feel motivated. Therefore, provide good reasons. Good reasons are ones that align with the person’s values and needs.

2. Give Challenges and Feedback

Help a person feel competent by starting the activity at a notch or two beyond their current abilities so that it is challenging but also achievable. As the person succeeds in completing the task, gradually stretch their limit. Provide sincere praise and constructive feedback without criticism along the way.

3. Connect with Those Who Are Motivated

People are inherently motivated to feel a sense of belonging and connection to others. Do the activity with someone relatable and passionate. For example, find a buddy, get a mentor, or join a team. 

Final Thoughts On Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is not always worse. When you need to help people stay motivated on a task, external rewards may work in the short run. But to obtain better results, strive for integrated regulation by finding the right reason, getting a sense of competence, and feeling connected.


  1. 1.
    Ryan RM, Koestner R, Deci EL. Ego-involved persistence: When free-choice behavior is not intrinsically motivated. Motiv Emot. September 1991:185-205. doi:10.1007/bf00995170
  2. 2.
    Lepper MR, Greene D, Nisbett RE. Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1973:129-137. doi:10.1037/h0035519
  3. 3.
    Deci E, Koestner R, Ryan R. A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychol Bull. 1999;125(6):627-668; discussion 692-700.
  4. 4.
    Ryan R, Deci E. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemp Educ Psychol. 2000;25(1):54-67.
  5. 5.
    Vallerand RJ. Toward A Hierarchical Model of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. In: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Elsevier; 1997:271-360. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(08)60019-2
  6. 6.
    Ryan R, Deci E. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. Am Psychol. 2000;55(1):68-78.
  7. 7.
    Scott Rigby C, Deci EL, Patrick BC, Ryan RM. Beyond the intrinsic-extrinsic dichotomy: Self-determination in motivation and learning. Motiv Emot. September 1992:165-185. doi:10.1007/bf00991650