Some tasks make you feel inspired, stimulated, and raring to go.
Other tasks can make you want to curl up in bed, procrastinate on Netflix, or avoid them at all costs, until you’re finally forced to get on with it.
The reality is, some activities will always feel like a chore. But sadly, we still need to motivate ourselves to do things that are boring, effortful, or lacking in pleasure. This is where extrinsic motivation comes in.
Although some forms of extrinsic motivation have a poor reputation, more autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation are valuable for energizing us to do things we don’t enjoy.
In this article, we delve into what extrinsic motivation is, discuss everyday examples, and suggest strategies to help you cultivate more autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation.
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This Article Contains:
- What Is Extrinsic Motivation in Psychology?
- Self-Determination Theory & Extrinsic Motivation
- 4 Factors of Extrinsic Motivation
- 3 Real-Life Examples of Extrinsic Motivation
- Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation: Advantages & Disadvantages
- Assessing Extrinsic Motivation: 3 Questionnaires & Scales
- 6 Helpful Strategies and Techniques
- PositivePsychology.com’s Related Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Extrinsic Motivation in Psychology?
Motivation is the drive to act; it propels us to be creative, learn new skills, and persevere with challenging tasks (Ryan & Deci, 2020). Although motivation is essential for helping us achieve our goals, it’s not always easy to come by.
Some people are naturally more motivated than others, and the strength of our motivation can change from day to day (Ryan & Deci, 2020). We experience motivation from different sources and are compelled to do things for instrumental reasons and because we simply enjoy doing them (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Extrinsic motivation represents our drive to engage in an activity to gain rewards or avoid punishments. In other words, we are motivated by the instrumental value of an activity; it is a means to an end (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Some people are fundamentally more motivated by extrinsic rewards. People who have extrinsic aspirations see financial wealth, physical attractiveness, and recognition or fame as more important or worthy goals in their life (Deci, Olafsen, & Ryan, 2017).
Whereas, goals in the areas of personal development, community, and meaningful relationships fall into the category of intrinsic aspirations, which are more likely to predict positive outcomes such as job satisfaction and wellbeing (Deci et al., 2017).
Self-Determination Theory & Extrinsic Motivation
The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) was first established over 20 years ago and is a widely used theoretical framework for understanding human motivation across education, work, sports, and healthcare settings (Deci et al., 2017).
At the heart of it, the SDT is an ‘organismic’ theory; a key premise being that people have a natural tendency toward growth and progression. To develop ourselves, we must seek out learning opportunities, competence, and relationships with others (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
But, that’s not all. The SDT assumes that the systems and organizations that people work and live within need to be supportive of their needs to allow motivation to thrive (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
Autonomous versus controlled
A critical point made in the SDT is the difference between autonomous extrinsic motivation and controlled extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
With controlled motivation, people are likely to feel pressured, controlled, or compelled into doing something. In contrast, with autonomous motivation, there is an element of self-endorsement or “getting on board” with the activity.
We perceive our actions to be voluntary and congruent with what we want or value (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Unsurprisingly, more autonomous forms of motivation lead to better wellbeing and performance outcomes (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
To facilitate more autonomous forms of motivation, the SDT proposes that three basic needs must be met (Ryan & Deci, 2020):
- Autonomy: to feel self-determined and have a sense of agency over our actions
- Competence: an ability to do things effectively – a sense of mastery
- Relatedness: our connections with others and a sense of belonging to a group, community, or organization
Blocking or squashing any of these basic needs is likely to create a motivational bottleneck. In support of the SDT, greater satisfaction of basic needs leads to more autonomous motivation and effort expenditure at work (De Cooman, Stynen, Van den Broeck, Sels, & De Witte, 2013), enhanced enjoyment of work (Andreassen, Hetland, & Pallesen, 2010) and less exhaustion at work (Van den Broeck, Vansteenkiste, De Witte, & Lens, 2008).
4 Factors of Extrinsic Motivation
Early theories of motivation typically understood motivation as a singular concept that varied only in amount, whereas the SDT was the first to illuminate the different types of motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
The SDT categorizes extrinsic motivation into four subtypes (Ryan & Deci, 2020):
- External regulation – seeing the cause of behavior as mostly external; the lowest level of autonomy; motivated to comply based on external rewards and punishments
- Introjection regulation – seeing the cause of behavior as somewhat external; there is some ego-involvement (e.g., self-esteem is affected by the outcome); an element of seeking validation from ourselves or others
- Identification – seeing the cause of behavior as somewhat internal; consciously assessing tasks or goals to carry personal value; feeling autonomy and volition
- Integration – the highest level of autonomy; seeing the cause of behavior as internal; consciously identifying and internalizing the value of tasks or goals; seeing tasks or goals as consistent with personal values and interests
The key differences between the subtypes are
i) How much we internalize the value of a task we don’t find intrinsically motivating
ii) How much we feel we are in the driver’s seat when carrying out certain behaviors (Ryan & Deci, 2020)
Even though autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation look similar to intrinsic motivation, there’s an important difference. Intrinsic motivation is fueled by genuine enjoyment or interest in the activity or goal; autonomous extrinsic motivation is driven by the value we give to an activity (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
We are complex creatures, and our motivational drives are not always limited to one type. The SDT acknowledges that people can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, and may experience different subtypes of extrinsic motivation at the same time (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
Other research suggests that even when people are intrinsically motivated, it’s impossible to be completely unaware of the consequences of their behavior (Covington & Müeller, 2001). So, although pure enjoyment may be the overriding source of motivation to carry out a task, we can’t rule out the presence of extrinsic motivators that may also be at play (Covington & Müeller, 2001).
3 Real-Life Examples of Extrinsic Motivation
We’re likely to view a task as more worthy of our time if we can identify and internalize its value (Ryan & Deci, 2020). The next few examples show the difference between controlled and autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation, and how they might play out in everyday scenarios.
Cleaning the bathroom
Your friends are visiting this weekend, and the bathroom seriously needs a clean. Your initial source of motivation may be the fear of judgment from your friends as they cast their eyes over your grubby facilities (if you possess intrinsic motivation for cleaning, you’ve hit the jackpot).
You can view the torturous act of cleaning as a burden you will forever despise (‘controlled’ extrinsic motivation). Or, you can change your attitude and see cleaning as an instrumentally valuable task. Creating a clean space to bathe is a form of self-care you value (‘autonomous’ motivation). Even though a clean bathroom may also be more pleasing to your friends, that’s just a bonus.
Work meetings can be a slog, especially if you’ve got deadlines and emails to respond to. If the sole value of attending a meeting is to avoid getting yelled at by your superior, you’re likely to feel like a victim, dragged to a tedious and time-consuming fate (‘controlled’ extrinsic motivation).
However, you may see instrumental value if you connect with your teammates during the meeting. If social connection is something you inherently value, you’ll feel your attendance is a choice (‘autonomous’ extrinsic motivation). The meeting itself is still not enjoyable, but it is a handy means to chat with your colleagues during work time.
Learning to drive
Learning to drive is a complex task with an overwhelming amount of information to take in right at the start. For some, the act of learning to drive is enjoyable, but for many, it is very stressful.
That said, being able to drive a car may be very important to you, as you can be more independent. If you’re able to internalize the value of this reward as meaningful to you, you’re more likely to feel like you’re actively choosing to learn. As you move closer to getting your license, the challenging elements of driving will be outweighed by the increases in positive emotions and wellbeing.
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation: Advantages & Disadvantages
Intrinsic motivation is the gold dust of motivation.
When we’re intrinsically motivated, we don’t need to be enticed by the dangling carrot or threatened by the discipline of the stick. We do something for the joy of the process itself (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Intrinsic motivation is the basis for curiosity, learning, and growth, which makes it pretty important for human development (Ryan & Deci, 2020). If we are only motivated by external rewards, we are less likely to explore new activities or acquire new knowledge or skills that serve no instrumental purpose (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
The problem is, we can’t always rely on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is extremely personal and limited in most situations. Both at home and work, we often need to tap into extrinsic motivation to get the job done.
Extrinsic motivation becomes more relevant as we get older and have more social responsibilities that limit our ability to do things we find inherently enjoyable (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Quality versus quantity
There is an undeniable quality versus quantity trade-off when it comes to extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. A meta-analysis by Cerasoli, Nicklin, and Ford (2014) found that extrinsic incentives were a better predictor of quantitative measures of performance, whereas intrinsic motivation more strongly predicted quality of performance.
Where creativity is concerned, intrinsic motivation has the edge. Check out this insightful TED Talk from motivation expert Professor Beth Hennessey, speaking about why intrinsic motivation is critical for facilitating creativity in the classroom.
When to avoid extrinsic rewards
We also need to be careful about mixing extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. If you’re providing contingent rewards to encourage intrinsically motivated behaviors, this can backfire and harm intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).
A meta-analysis found extrinsic rewards at work (pay for performance) resulted in better performance on relatively uninteresting tasks, but weaker performance for more interesting tasks (Weibel, Rost, & Osterloh, 2010). This phenomenon is often referred to as the over-justification effect (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).
Contingent rewards are external or tangible rewards offered in exchange for:
- Carrying out a task
- Good performance
- Completing a task (Deci et al., 2017)
Offering a contingent reward to someone for an activity they already love doing gives the impression that the task is not inherently valuable in itself and may be perceived as an attack on their autonomy (Deci et al., 2017).
Assessing Extrinsic Motivation: 3 Questionnaires & Scales
The following scales and questionnaires are based on the SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Two scales capture the different types of motivation, and one measures basic need satisfaction.
These questionnaires measure motivation (or self-regulation) in seven areas: academic, prosocial, healthcare, learning, exercise, religion, and friendship.
Sub-scales can be used in isolation, or scores for different sub-scales can be combined to create a Relative Autonomy Index. The questionnaires ask people why they do things and tap into all types of motivation identified by the SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
All sub-scales and scoring information can be downloaded by members (membership is free, as of the time of writing) from the Self-Determination Theory website.
Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction Scale – General
This 21-item scale measures the extent to which basic needs of autonomy, competency, and relatedness are met in someone’s life (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Gagné, 2003).
In this scale, scores for autonomy, competency, and relatedness are calculated in a ‘General’ domain, but there are also scales available for ‘Relationship’ and ‘Work’ domains.
Scales and full scoring information (as well as other basic needs satisfaction scales) can be downloaded by members.
Multidimensional Work Motivation Scale
This 19-item scale asks people why they put effort into their job and differentiates between social and material extrinsic regulation, as well as all the other types.
You can calculate the different subtypes of motivation or get an overall score of autonomous versus controlled types of motivation (Gagné et al., 2015).
The scale items can be found in the appendix of Gagné et al.’s (2015) paper. The scale is also available in other languages by contacting the first or second author.
6 Helpful Strategies and Techniques
The best way to boost more autonomous extrinsic motivation is to create the right conditions for people to thrive (Deci et al., 2017).
If needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met, people are more able to internalize the value of an activity, even if the activity was initially motivated by external incentives (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Actively support autonomy
When people feel more autonomous, they are more likely to self-regulate and seek out ways to satisfy their basic needs (Deci et al., 2017).
In the workplace, developing an autonomy-supportive environment is achieved by asking questions; taking the perspective of your clients, teammates, or employees; allowing people to vent difficult emotions; and offering people a choice (Deci et al., 2017).
Cultivate a sense of belonging
Supporting people to feel part of a community, group, or family will encourage them to internalize the values and behaviors of that group (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
When people feel related to others in this way, they are going to see value in engaging in activities that are aligned with the group’s values and mission.
If people feel like they are competent to carry out a certain activity, they are more likely to do it (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
Providing specific, positive, and informational feedback can help people reach competency (Deci et al., 2017). Understanding where or when people feel incompetent could help you uncover why extrinsic motivation may be falling short.
Give people a reason
Motivation research has shown that giving a rationale for doing an activity increases internalization (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994).
Providing people with a solid justification for the activity they’re doing empowers them to reassess the value of the activity for themselves.
Avoid reward systems based on approval
When praise or approval is the only source of reward on offer, people are likely to engage in extrinsically motivated behaviors that are purely ego driven, meaning they’re focused on achieving status or avoiding damage to self-esteem (Deci et al., 2017).
So, rather than highlighting reward systems that depend on the opinions of others, you could emphasize how activities are valuable on a deeper level (e.g., an opportunity to build relationships with a new team, increase work flexibility, or learn a new skill).
The SDT emphasizes the importance of self-awareness for facilitating more autonomous forms of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
Mindfulness can help people explore their needs, feelings, and values at a deeper level, which may empower them to sustain and seek opportunities that support their autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
PositivePsychology.com’s Related Resources
If you’re keen to learn more about motivation, there’s an abundance of articles and activities on our site to explore.
These three articles offer a broader understanding of motivation in the areas of intrinsic motivation, educational interventions, and motivational interviewing:
- What Is Motivational Interviewing? A Practical Theory of Change
- Motivation in Education: What It Takes to Motivate Our Kids
- How to Increase Intrinsic Motivation: 20 Foolproof Methods & Strategies
Here are two useful resources to help build your motivational interviewing skills using the principles of SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2020):
17 Motivation & Goal-Achievement Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, this collection contains 17 validated motivation & goals-achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.
A Take-Home Message
Let’s face it, intrinsic motivation doesn’t grow on trees.
Some tasks will forever be boring, effortful, or unpleasant, and we may need external incentives to get motivated.
Extrinsic motivation has picked up a poor reputation as intrinsic motivation’s less attractive cousin, but when intrinsic motivation is nonexistent, more autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation offer the next best thing.
If you want to boost extrinsic motivation, increasing tangible or contingent rewards like money, praise, or chocolate is not necessarily going to be an effective strategy.
Motivation is a complex psychological force that needs to be treated with respect.
Meeting people’s needs for autonomy, relatedness, and a sense of competency is important for people to feel like their actions are self-determined and motivate them to do things they don’t really want to do (Ryan & Deci, 2020).
The next time you glance down at your to-do list and feel a rising sense of dread, remind yourself you have a choice, give yourself a reason, and try to identify with the instrumental value of a task on a deeper level. If all else fails and you really can’t get going, a good old-fashioned reward could spark enough motivation to get the job done.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.
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