Humans are complex beings — in some cases, we’re motivated by our internal desires, dreams, and ambitions. In other situations, we might be motivated by external factors, such as the possibility of punishment, pay, or other types of extrinsic motivators.
Understanding the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation will help you grasp your own motivational patterns and take charge of your life. Let’s break down extrinsic motivation and some examples in detail.
What Is Extrinsic Motivation?
Extrinsic motivation, also called external regulation, is driven or inspired by external rewards, pressures, or threats. External rewards and incentives can include, but are not limited to:
- Money or other physical compensation
- Grades or gold stars, as we all experience in school
- The threat of physical punishment, such as spanking and other negative outcomes
- The threat of verbal punishment, like a lecture
- The promise of a reward for doing something
Note that extrinsic reward systems can be both tangible and intangible, and they can be present in both types of motivation. Tangible rewards are physical things you can touch or feel. Intangible motivators are things like praise, criticism, fame, etc.
Regardless, extrinsic motivation inspires behavior in a person by coming from outside their mind. Someone or something else provides extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: How Do They Differ?
You can understand extrinsic motivation if you compare it to intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the opposite: it comes from within instead of without. Basically, it’s doing something for your own sake.
When you experience intrinsic motivation, your desire or inspiration occurs without an external stimulus or threat registering. For instance, if you have an internal dream to be an astronaut, you may be intrinsically motivated to go to school, study well, and join the Air Force in order to achieve that dream.
Similarly, you may have an intrinsic motivation to do something nice for your spouse. You aren’t motivated by the promise of physical or intangible rewards from them; instead, you just want to make their day better. In response, you draw them a bubble bath they can enjoy when they get home from work.
According to the self-determination theory of human motivation, people feel both sources of motivation, which can impact their well-being and mental health, their ability to learn new skills, and other aspects of human behavior.
Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation both inspire a certain behavior (or avoidance of a behavior) in a person. The key difference between these motivation types is where the motivator comes from. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside your mind or body. Intrinsic motivation comes from within your mind or body.
It’s also important to keep in mind that internal or intrinsic motivation tends to be harder to cultivate but also longer lasting compared to extrinsic motivation. If you have an internal desire to pursue a specific career, for instance, that motivation may last for longer compared to an extrinsic motivation to acquire a certain amount of money, impress a certain person or boss, etc.
Is Extrinsic Motivation More Effective Than Intrinsic Motivation?
In this light, extrinsic motivation is not better than intrinsic motivation. Instead, they can both be used for different purposes.
For example, say that you need to get up early to cover a shift at work for a sick coworker. You don’t want to cover the shift, but you already agreed to do it in exchange for overtime hours.
When your alarm clock rings in the morning, you don’t have any intrinsic motivation to get up and adhere to your promise. However, you can use external motivators to get yourself to rise, shower, and make it to work. You can derive extrinsic motivation from:
- The knowledge that your friendship with your coworker will suffer if you renege on your promise
- The knowledge that your supervisor will not be pleased if you don’t show up for a shift you agreed to cover
- The knowledge that the overtime pay you will acquire will allow you to buy something nice after you get off work
In this way, extrinsic motivation can be used to supplement or replace intrinsic motivation when the latter doesn’t work or isn’t present. A healthy, well-rounded individual will understand how both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation work and how to consciously leverage them for maximum effect.
It’s important to note here that while both types of motivation are strong motivators, extrinsic motivation can often negatively affect intrinsic motivation in what is known as the overjustification effect. This happens when a behavior is rewarded so often that you no longer want to do it. Think about it this way: if you got a dollar every time you ran a lap, pretty soon, running would get boring.
What Are Examples of Extrinsic Motivation?
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to understand extrinsic motivation if you break down several examples.
For example, if you want to win a trophy or prize to impress someone at school, you might enroll in a spelling bee contest or a sports team. This is a type of extrinsic motivation, as you are motivated by the desire to receive praise, admiration, or affection from someone else.
Similarly, if you do your schoolwork and study hard for a test, you are working under the influence of extrinsic motivation. You want to earn a good grade, which is an external factor rather than an internal one.
As another example, you might decide to use one credit card over another in order to receive special bonuses like airline miles or cashback rewards. Again, these are extrinsic motivational factors that reward your behavior or a specific action.
As possibly the most common example, almost all of us go to work in order to receive a paycheck. That’s a kind of extrinsic motivation, as we need money in order to buy food and other things we need to live. Even though that extrinsic motivation is practically universal, it doesn’t come from within ourselves.
According to most theories of motivation, a negative form of extrinsic motivation, like a threat, is less ideal for pursuing positive outcomes. It’s only appropriate for short-term motivation or particular tasks. In contrast, positive feedback is more likely to motivate people compared to different types of motivation.
Furthermore, internal motivation based on basic psychological needs and intrinsic interest is more likely to result in high self-esteem.
Is Extrinsic Motivation Effective?
While extrinsic motivation can be effective, it’s important not to see it as universally good or bad. Just like intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation can be good in the right circumstances. But it can also be used for bad actions or become harmful.
For example, an overly disciplinary parent threatening to spank their child uses extrinsic motivation in an improper way. They may cause a fear response in their child or prevent them from forming an emotional attachment to their parent.
Extrinsic motivation, however, can be a good motivator in some circumstances. It’s tough to constantly maintain intrinsic motivation, particularly for things we don’t inherently or naturally want to do. In these situations, extrinsic motivation can “convince” us to do what needs to be done for our own wellness, even if we would rather stay put or not do the task at hand.
How Can You Use Extrinsic Motivation?
Now that you understand extrinsic motivation a little better, you can use it to motivate yourself at key times.
Like in one of the above examples, if you don’t feel like going to work, remind yourself of the extrinsic motivators that you might reward yourself with if you do what has to be done. This can be a particularly important tactic if, for instance, you have an unpleasant task ahead of you but need to motivate yourself to do it regardless.
Say that you have to complete a daunting homework assignment that will require many hours of study and writing a lengthy paper. Even though you don’t want to do it and would rather hang out with your friends, you can use extrinsic motivation to remind yourself that you need to complete the assignment to get a good grade, graduate from college, and acquire a high-paying job in the years to come.
In this way and similar ways, you can use extrinsic motivation as a tool. You can even use this as a tool to motivate others in your life.
For instance, say that you have a child who doesn’t want to clean up their room. You want to instill positive habits in your child so they eventually do it without being asked. In the meantime, you can provide extrinsic motivation, like the promise of a piece of candy, to get them to do something they don’t want to do initially.
Extrinsic motivation comes from external factors, like physical rewards or money. It can be positive or negative, depending on the circumstances. While intrinsic motivation is important, you should keep in mind that you can harness extrinsic motivation to motivate yourself to do great things if you’re smart about it.
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