Motivation is the “why” behind human behavior. It is the energy to act, the driving force behind the things we do. 

Without this energy and desire comes a lack of inspiration, or the feeling of being unmotivated. This can lead to procrastination, a general lack of vitality, as well as less willingness to grow or seek out new and challenging opportunities. 

Human motivation is intertwined with self-development and psychology. Within the field of psychology, motivation is separated into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation can be described as doing an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence or from fear of negative outcomes. 

Extrinsic motivation refers to an engagement in activities due to the influence of outside factors, or “extrinsic motivators,” rather than doing them for the simple feeling of satisfaction they bring. 

Examples of extrinsic motivation might include studying for a test because a fail would force you to repeat a grade, or working out early in the morning before work in order to fit into a wedding dress. Unlike intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivators are not done for their own sake.

Although studies have found intrinsic motivation to be a more effective form of motivation, extrinsic motivation has a wealth of benefits as well. In recent years, more and more studies have found its value… when used skillfully.

In this article, we’ll explore the subtleties of extrinsic motivation before providing tips on how to integrate these insights into your life. Not only will this give you a clear overview of the “why” of your behavior, it will offer steps to boost your motivation in all areas of life. What more motivation do you need to read on?

What is the definition of extrinsic motivation?

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines extrinsic motivation as “an external incentive to engage in a specific activity, especially motivation arising from the expectation of punishment or reward (e.g., completing a disliked chore in exchange for payment).”

Extrinsic motivation is tied to the outcome. The activity isn’t performed from enjoyment itself, but because of the result the action will bring. Studies in behavioral psychology have long associated motivation with the dynamic of reward and punishment — where it was assumed people are incentivized to avoid pain or pursue some form of pleasure. 

However, recent research has shown the truth is more complex. Self-determination theory, created by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (who created the categories of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation) explains motivation as existing on a spectrum. Extrinsic motivation is separated into four groups:

  • External regulation (external): Activities are carried out purely to satisfy external demands, such as requests from a boss or instructions from a teacher, or for external rewards. It lacks freedom or willingness.
  • Introjected regulation (somewhat external): Activities carried out due to external pressure, such as avoiding feelings of guilt or shame, or looking to attain ego-enhancements or pride. Although internally driven (and psychological in nature), it still feels restrictive or lacking willingness. 
  • Identified regulation (somewhat internal): This action is more autonomous, due to finding personal importance in an activity. For example, a child studying for a spelling test because they see the overall value of writing. Although requests or demands to act are external, identified regulation has an element of willingness due to an interest in personal growth.
  • Integrated regulation (internal): This is the overlap between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Integration occurs when someone has fully internalised extrinsic factors, and now takes on the activity fully as their own. This is the most desirable form of extrinsic motivation.

These behaviors move up the scale in terms of how much the person experiences a sense of freedom or autonomy in their behaviour. The first feels completely outside of control, the last feels harmonious, and borderline intrinsic. In experimenting with these above types of extrinsic motivation, Ryan and Connell (1989) referred to this scale as the “continuum of relative autonomy.” 

The value of extrinsic motivation, then, is related to this degree of autonomy.

The difference between internal and external motivation

extrinsic motivation
(Seiya Kawamoto/Getty)

To be clear, extrinsic isn’t the same as external

Not all rewards are located in the outside world, but rather, exist as inner experiences or feelings. Internal rewards are psychological, while external rewards are tangible, such as money or a certificate of study. Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal reward, including the joy of the task alone. Extrinsic motivation can be driven by internal rewards, external rewards, or a mix of both.

If you’re on the path of self-development and are interested in exploring the reasons behind your behavior, noticing this difference requires reflection and self-awareness. That’s because it might appear you’re intrinsically motivated, when in reality, there is confusion between the internal reward you’re expecting to receive once the task is complete.

Using some personal data as an example, I’ve noticed there have been times where I’ve written articles that, unconsciously, I was looking for some form of validation or praise. It wasn’t my only motivation to write (it’s a practice I find highly rewarding). But at times, when I write a piece that I’m proud of, and the response is less than expected, I become aware of my inner desire for external rewards.

The creative process can be a liberating and joyful experience. But once that creative work is released into the world, the ego can hijack the process, and seek acclaim.

Extrinsic motivators: a closer look

The most common example of extrinsic motivation with a tangible reward is working for money. Many people work in jobs they don’t love due to the guarantee of a paycheck at the end of the month, with the salary, and the security it provides, being enough incentive to turn up each day and work. In terms of internal rewards, or psychological rewards, someone might work in a role due to its acclaim, status, or respect.

A modern form of extrinsic motivation is FOMO — or fear of missing out. During the worldwide lockdowns and restrictions during 2020, FOMO wasn’t much of an issue. Yet now things are opening up, it becomes easier to feel a subtle pull to keep up to speed with what others are doing. Social media shows a constant reel of people’s lives and everything they’re up to. FOMO is the motivation to take part, even if it’s an activity or experience you’re not internally motivated or enthusiastic about.

Although it’s a slang term, FOMO has genuine consequences on wellbeing and behavior. Due to its rise in recent years, FOMO has been scientifically researched, with one study finding it to be “identified as a meaningful extrinsic motive.” Although FOMO is a relatively new phenomenon, acting to maintain self-image, or fit in socially, is part of the human DNA. Ryan and Deci refer to this as ego involvement, “in which a person performs an act in order to enhance or maintain self-esteem and the feeling of worth.”

Extrinsic motivation is also linked to social media and modern smartphones. Our devices and apps are filled with external rewards that provide dopamine hits — think of “likes” on social media, or design techniques, such as the infinite scroll, that keep your attention. Chamath Palihapitiya, the former VC of growth at Facebook, went as far as to express guilt because “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

When it comes to people behaving the way they do, with mental clarity and a strong sense of connection, it’s unlikely most people would choose to spend hours upon hours browsing Facebook or Instagram. Yet once in those feedback loops, the extrinsic rewards affect motivation by getting you hooked to a burst of feel-good chemicals or social validation.

More on extrinsic rewards

Extrinsic rewards aren’t always negative, and their role in motivation is often complex. Think of a student studying to get good grades. If it’s a subject they don’t like, there’s a chance they won’t find much joy in studying itself. Yet the outcome of getting good grades, and progressing in the academic ladder, is enough to make the extrinsic reward a solid motivation.

Like all aspects of human behavior, there are many layers involved. It’s not as straightforward as motivation being intrinsic or extrinsic or motivated internally or externally. There is overlap. For example, in a work setting, someone may be motivated to work extra hard to receive a financial bonus (external reward). They may also have the desire to receive praise from their boss (internal reward). The work they’re doing could be aligned to their values, too, making it intrinsically rewarding.

Another daily example is completing a chore — such as taking out the rubbish or cleaning the flat — which is motivated by the sense of satisfaction that will result once the job’s done. It’s rare these activities are enjoyable. But it’s part of life that there are many occasions in which we have to work through unpleasant, boring, or mundane tasks.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: the benefits

In our article on intrinsic motivation, we explored why having intrinsic interest in taking an action is more effective for success over the long run, rather than relying on external factors. Research and peer reviewed studies into motivation has found this to be the case, and much more effective than the approach of avoiding punishment and chasing rewards. Studies find that extrinsic motivation is effective short-term, but loses its impact over longer periods of time.

However, extrinsic motivation isn’t useless. The relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is known as “synergistic combination.” There is a sweet spot, where the internal and external elements of motivation combine and enhance each other — think of the example above, of someone working for the satisfaction of the job, plus the desire to receive a financial bonus.

It’s unrealistic to expect to enter a flow state all day, every day, and to feel intrinsically motivated to carry out every activity. If we waited to feel an inner desire, it’s likely we’d end up procrastinating on many tasks. So while extrinsic motivation isn’t as effective long-term, the short-term effects can be harnessed, under the right circumstances.

There’s a significant difference between relying purely on extrinsic motivation for a full-time job or study, compared to being extrinsically motivated to carry out certain undesirable tasks. A good example of this is treating yourself when you’ve completed a certain task. For example, “once I’ve written 1,000 words, I’ll have a cookie.” Or “if I do my tax returns, I’ll book myself a massage.” And so on.

As long as you’re not using these techniques all the time, their short-term effects can be used skilfully. And keep in mind the four types of extrinsic motivation and the scale of autonomy. You want to avoid external regulation as much as you can and aim for identified regulation and integrated regulation. It’s not quite intrinsic mutation, but the more autonomy in a task, the more fulfilment.

How to make the most of extrinsic motivation in 5 steps

So, how can you implement this knowledge? How can you find the sweet spot of synergy, and move towards implementing the best kind of extrinsic motivation? What is the best way to stay motivated? Below are 5 takeaways from the above research, distilled into practical tools:

1. Examine your motivation inventory

Earlier, I mentioned that extrinsic motivations can be confused with intrinsic motivations. The first step is to examine your motivation inventory, which means looking at all the areas of life in which you take action, and building clarity around the “why” of your behavior.

When looking across the different areas of your life, consider what motivates you. Are there activities that are clearly intrinsically motivated, those you’d do for free in your spare time? Are there obligations or areas in which you’re extrinsically motivated, but lack inner enthusiasm?

This examination also boosts your self-awareness. It allows you to take more conscious control of the way you’re acting. You begin to notice the whys behind your behavior, which gives you the chance to change.

2. Explore what needs to be changed

Once you have examined your motivations, and where they reside on the spectrum, the next step is to see what needs to be changed. What enhancements can you make? Are there adjustments in your approach? Do you need to swap some external motivators  for more intrinsically motivated ones? For example, quitting a class you don’t find interesting, and replacing that with an activity you find internally rewarding. 

Are there areas of life where you’re constantly taking action due to introjected regulation, to avoid guilt or to find praise? Are there certain areas of life where you feel you’re only acting because of external pressure? People-pleasing is a common cause of acting outside of what feels fully aligned for the sake of ego involvement. 

When reflecting on your motivation inventory, consider what actions you’re doing because of others, and consider letting them go.

3. Adjust your mindset

Integrated regulation demonstrates that it’s possible to internalize a cause, even if the motivation starts externally. For example, internalizing the goals and ethos of a company. This is a shift in mindset, rather than a change in environment. To adjust your mindset to maximize integrated regulation, consider how the activity aligns with your core values.

For example, you might work in a job where the work itself isn’t exciting. You could consider a job with different challenges, of course. But are there other options? Could it be that you’re part of a great team, and your values of connection and supporting others adds a level of intrinsic motivation to do your job well?

This step is designed to look below the surface to discover causes you can connect to, to make what you do more fulfilling and enjoyable. A student might connect with the values of learning, a churchgoer might connect to values of community, even when these acts in themselves aren’t particularly enjoyable.

4. Use extrinsic rewards skillfully

I used the example of writing 1,000 words and earning a cookie earlier. This is a practice that can be used to boost motivation (and… eat cookies). You’re bargaining with yourself, but it does work. If there are areas in life where you’re struggling or procrastinating, consider setting up extrinsic rewards to give you a boost.

Word of caution: this isn’t to be overused. I had a friend who once used the extrinsic reward of a pint of beer and a takeaway after successfully going to gym class! You can see the issue there. So consider, how can I maximize rewards and use them intelligently? 

Using extrinsic rewards for motivation doesn’t have to be a daily occurrence. It could be that you work hard for a few weeks and get ahead with your projects, feel satisfied with the levels of productivity and self-discipline, and take a weekend vacation, or completely “switch off.”

5. Know what you want from life

This last step is really the foundation for all of the above. I’ve mentioned core values and self-awareness. It goes without saying, inner clarity around what is meaningful, what motivates you, and what your values are is crucial in order to orientate yourself and know when you’re on the right track.

In today’s society, it’s easy to be motivated extrinsically. Without awareness, the default setting is to act in accordance with social or cultural demands, or peer pressure. You might feel motivated to get ahead, be a success, even if it doesn’t feel quite right. This can keep you in a rut, chasing money or praise without examining the underlying why.

With added clarity, you’ll know what you want. Then you can understand your deepest motivation, or what your Big Why, and gradually align your life with that.

In conclusion

The beauty is, once aligned, motivation takes care of itself, and it builds momentum. When momentum builds and motivation flows, that’s when you start to believe in chasing your dreams. You’re almost exactly where you need be. Take the first step.