What is Extrinsic Motivation and How Can it Affect Behavior?

Motivation is the engine that moves us to do things. However, this force does not always have the same origin. That's why we can talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
What is Extrinsic Motivation and How Can it Affect Behavior?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 10 December, 2022

Motivation is the driving force behind our actions; it’s what causes us to feel enthusiasm to undertake projects or initiate activities. As a psychological construct, motivation is defined as “the set of processes involved in the activation, direction, and persistence of behavior.”

However, it doesn’t always have the same origin. Hence, a distinction can be made between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The difference is basically what moves the person to do a certain thing. Do you want to know more about it?

What is extrinsic motivation?

If you think about identifying the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, you may ask yourself about its origin. What we’re talking about here is whether it’s internal or external.

In the case of extrinsic motivation, the fact of initiating a certain activity or carrying out a project is related to external recognition – i.e., obtaining some external reward or reinforcement.

In contrast, intrinsic motivation has to do with those things that move us internally. For example, self-satisfaction, and the need for self-fulfillment may be examples of this, among other things.

In their research, Ryan and Deci (1997) relate three determining personal factors to intrinsic motivation: the feeling of autonomy, the perception of competence, and the need for emotional support and interpersonal relationships. The person “activates” when he/she wants and desires it, it is under his/her control, and the person also has the capacity for self-reinforcement.

In the case of extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, this type of motivation is activated by something that’s not “within oneself”; it depends on another person or their environment. In other words, it’s not something they can control.

Therefore, external motivation is also associated with behavior modification techniques, such as operant conditioning. In this case, the aim is to get a person to perform (or stop performing) certain behaviors based on reinforcement or reward.

It’s also important to consider that motivation is not something stable or that always remains the same, but can change over time. Contextual, social, cultural, and economic factors influence both types, perhaps with greater emphasis on extrinsic motivation.

What is valued, what is rewarded, and what is interesting? Every time a certain performance is reinforced, we send implicit (and not so implicit) messages about these questions.

What are some examples of extrinsic motivation?

extrinsic motivation and salaries
Extrinsic motivation is generally associated with factors related to work life, from which a person’s salary is derived.

Extrinsic motivation is present in different areas of life, both work and academic and relational, among others. Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Salary is an extrinsic motivation par excellence. We work for pay so that we can live, pay bills, and indulge ourselves.
  • Extrinsic motivation is also used in customer loyalty programs. For example, the customer who buys the most, the premium customer, or the one who has the platinum card is the one who has access to greater discounts, benefits in commercial premises, and immediate attention, among other rewards.
  • In the workplace, in addition to salary, we find extrinsic motivation in the case of opportunities for promotion and advancement. Certain benefits are also an incentive to attract or retain talent in organizations.

How effective is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is positive when used appropriately. In this sense, it’s not a matter of always reinforcing a behavior or doing this in just any way, but of choosing when and how.

It’s also important to bear in mind that reinforcements need not be material (in fact, these are usually the least recommended) and to opt for social or symbolic ones instead, such as recognition or an experience.

When using a reinforcement or a reward, it’s a good idea to consider its temporality and whether it’s immediate, especially when applied to children. In this way, it’s possible to establish the connection between what’s being done and the reward.

It’s important to know that it’s not necessary to reward each and every action of other people. In this case, the reinforcement ceases to be “the exceptional” and becomes every day, and therefore loses some of its importance or interest.

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The possible disadvantages of extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation, based on reinforcers, can be counterproductive in certain situations. One of the areas where its usefulness is being questioned the most is when it comes parenting.

For example, it’s often said that when adult caregivers give rewards to children who behave well, they may be encouraging a certain dependence or preoccupation with the reward rather than with the positive thing they are trying to promote (being respectful, behaving, etc.).

However, it’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that reinforcers must be applied in the right measure and at the right time. Moving to extremes has never been helpful and, in this case, the problem is not the reinforcer itself, but the excess.

It’s important to educate with reinforcements, but they must be in tune with the behavior and be proportional.

On the other hand, it has also been mentioned that extrinsic motivation can have the opposite effect on intrinsic motivation by diminishing it. The person, when motivated by “needing” the external reward or reinforcement, the person may even stop doing his or her actions or stop listening to their own intuition and internal compass.

That is, the compass that guides the person to do or not to do something comes from the outside, and not from internal self-satisfaction or self-interest. Again, it should be clear that this is not about demonizing extrinsic motivation, but about learning to make good use of it.

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The stages of extrinsic motivation

extrinsic motivation
As time goes by, extrinsic motivation can change its characteristics in the same individual.

In their research, Deci and Ryan developed the different stages of extrinsic motivation by understanding that extrinsic motivation is dynamic and changing. Thus, there may be a transition from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

Therefore, someone who started out motivated by something external can later develop internal motivation. The proposed stages are as follows:

  1. External motivation: The person is motivated by what he/she expects to receive from his/her environment or from the outside.
  2. Introjected motivation: At this stage, although there’s still an interest in receiving something, you begin to experience some internal satisfaction. Even at this stage, you have no control over it.
  3. Identification-regulated motivation: Here, the person continues to perform a certain activity with their focus on the reward. However, he/she begins to have more control over it and greater autonomy over his/her decisions.
  4. Motivation by integration. This is the last stage, in which there’s a predominance of intrinsic motivation, although it cannot be fully considered as such. Here, the interest in performing a certain activity can be identified as one’s own, i.e., as something internal.

Motivation is a foundation for exercising autonomy

Finally, it can therefore be said that working on extrinsic motivation can be a good tool to incite people to perform certain activities. Whether intrinsic or extrinsic, motivation has the power to move people.

However, as we’ve already made clear, it’s a matter of knowing how to make good use of it, and it can also work in parallel with intrinsic motivation. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that one of the objectives of motivation is that the person can exercise his or her autonomy.

Therefore, when we detect that the ultimate goal of an activity is only to obtain a reward, we may need to rethink the way in which we’re motivating ourselves or each other.

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The contents of this publication are for informational purposes only. At no time can they serve to facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult with your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.