Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards

intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

Understanding how intrinsic and extrinsic forms of motivation differ helps us plan our activities and stay engaged with tasks at hand. Intrinsic motivation is based on inner values, whilst extrinsic is based on contingent rewards. But how can we harness our internal motivation and how (and when) do extrinsic rewards help (or hinder)? Read on to find more…

Extrinsic motivation

We will start with perhaps the more common form of motivation (at least in workplace settings). Extrinsic motivation is based on being offered external rewards. These are also something we are exposed to from a very young age. When we did something our parents liked as a baby they rewarded us by smiling and cooing more than usual. This encourages us to do more of the action. This pattern of conditioning continues as we age. When we are all grown up, we get jobs where the pay is a form of extrinsic reward. We do something because we are paid to.

In this context, if someone wants us to do something with more effort, they reward us more. Setting bonuses for good performance is a classic example of this. Money, positive personal regard and widespread recognition are all examples of external rewards underpinning extrinsic motivation 1. Avoiding negative outcomes (’do this or you will be fired!’) is another, less pleasant, form of extrinsic motivation. But there are important limits to this strategy – unless the effort has become habitual,the motivation may only persist whilst the external reward is there. Even when the behaviour has become a habit, it is still unlikely we will sustain our motivation when the going gets tough (as better extrinsic rewards will be available elsewhere, and we will be more motivated to follow them). So, the risk of relying on extrinsic motivation is that, when the reward goes, so does the drive…

Intrinsic motivation – a better long term solution?

Self-determination theory argues that if we are motivated intrinsically we are driven to engage in a behaviour because the outcome is linked to something important to us 2. Our core goals and values line up with the behaviour and, more importantly, we are engaging in it to support those values. The rewards, rather than being granted to us, they are generated internally. In many cases, undertaking the activity is in itself a reward. For instance, when writing these articles, I enjoy the activity. The product of the activity also has a a perceived value in itself. I can be proud of what I have written. I also value the fact they align with a vision I have of making psychology accessible, which provides further reinforcement and motivation. [note: don’t let this put you off buying a book by me though, and generating a small external reward for me too!].

Typically, intrinsic motivation is longer lasting and more stable. It also sustains us even when there is little or no immediate external recognition or reward for the work (relative to the effort put in). It is psychologically healthy. Indeed, people who have high intrinsic motivation experience more work-related satisfaction, more often, than those who are primarily extrinsically motivated.3 They are also more resilient to set-backs and rise to challenges more readily. Features of intrinsic motivation has also been linked to achieving ‘flow’ (a state of of high performance)4

Balanced motivation

Both forms of motivation have their place. For well defined short term activity, having a high value extrinsic reward can help focus your activity. If you offered me a million dollar to do a lecture at your workplace, I would probably be on a plane quite quickly.  But, I would be motivated to get the reward, so would meet the criteria to do it, but maybe not be motivated to do much more than that (although, I hope my intrinsic motivation would help push me further!). However, without intrinsic motivation, longer term performance is unlikely to sustain (it’s tough to be a blogger, for instance, if you are in it for the money!). You also need to be careful with using extrinsic rewards, as some researchers suggest they undermine intrinsic motivation. 5

How can I use this information to improve my motivation?

  1. Understand that different aspects of your life are driven by different levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
  2. Extrinsic motivations (whether set by you or others) are more likely to boost motivation in the short term. Set yourself (or agree with others) achievable goals when rewards are extrinsic
  3. Longer terms projects need at least some element of intrinsic motivation, especially if difficult – by knowing your core values and aims, and mapping the onto the task, you will be able to sustain motivation more effectively
  4. Make sure you are not primarily driven by extrinsic motivation, as it can undermine your intrinsic drive.


  1. Lepper, M. R., & Greene, D. (Eds.). (2015). The hidden costs of reward: New perspectives on the psychology of human motivation. Psychology Press. 
  2. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68. 
  3. Mottaz, C. J. (1985). The relative importance of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards as determinants of work satisfaction. The Sociological Quarterly, 26, 365-385. 
  4. Rheinberg, F., & Engeser, S. (2018). Intrinsic motivation and flow. In Motivation and action (pp. 579-622). Springer, Cham. 
  5. Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668. 

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