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What is Extrinsic Motivation and How Can You Use It?

Written by Evelyn Marinoff
A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.
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If your boss gave you a 50% raise, would you be more driven and motivated to prove yourself? What about the situations when you go to the store and are able to cash in your credit card points? Does this make you more likely to keep spending? If you answered yes to these questions, you’re beginning to understand extrinsic motivation.

The above are just a few extrinsic motivation examples. According to studies, extrinsic incentives can’t quite measure up to their better half—the intristic motivation. [1] It still does the job to get us moving, but not quite at the same level as its twin, and not for long.

Simply put, extrinsic rewards don’t hold up for long.

And yet, there is also no denying that extrinsic motivation works. It’s quick, tangible, and can often be specifically measured and adjusted (think bonuses), and even get us to take action.

What is Extrinsic Motivation?

Let’s take a step back and discuss what extrinsic motivation mean.

Extrinsic motivation is an external incentive that encourages us to do a specific activity in order to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. It comes from outside to motivate people.

From childhood, our definition of what keeps us motivated is shaped by our family life and school. When we are young good grades and awards motivate us to do well in school.

As we grow older, extrinsic motivation becomes impactful at work – we want to perform better in our careers in order to get more money, more status, or anything else that would bring us independence.


Let’s look at an example to define the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic incentives and how they motivate us.

A student who does their homework because they fear parental sanctions is motivated extrinsically. In contrast, if they do it because they find it interesting or believe that this will help them practice and improve their skills, they are internally driven.

Both types of motivation work to get us moving, but the intensity, desire, and quality of our outcomes can be different.

You can find out more about the different types of motivation here: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams

How Well Does It Work?

Research confirms over and over that internal motivation is the preferred way to go if a person wants to have a consistent drive to complete tasks, perform better, or improve themselves.

So, intrinsic incentives seem to be the winner, no doubt, but this doesn’t mean that we should abandon external rewards as being ineffective. Extrinsic motivation is a good performer in its own right. When used properly, it can also deliver, but you need to read the fine print.


Firstly, external motivators are susceptible to the so-called Hedonic treadmill (aka Hedonic adaptation).[2] It simply means that we quickly get used to the good stuff.

There is also some research to attest that when we are extrinsically driven, the quality of our performance, persistence, and creativity are not just as good as with the intrinsic motivators.[3] It likely has to do with the “want to” vs. “must” state of mind. You start from a different mindset, and you end up with a different result.

Finally, studies tell us that extrinsic motivation can interfere with the internal ones and actually decrease it. It’s a phenomenon called the “overjustification effect.”[4] Simply put, if you enjoyed doing something and started to get rewarded for it, your inner drive to do it will progressively go down.

Regardless, external motivators can still cause you to take action. After all, not everything you do can be highly enjoyable and fulfilling, right? However, if you need to accomplish something that you may not quite feel like doing, extrinsic rewards often can push you through that extra mile you need to get to the finish line, especially when it comes to the areas of academia (think grades) and work (job, salaries, and recognition).

Examples of Extrinsic Rewards

1. Money

When you’re listening to the radio, have you noticed that many talk shows offer monetary rewards for “calling in” or participating in this or that activity? This is an example of a reward causing extrinsic motivation to increase your interest in playing.

You can also see this is the raise you’re trying to get to get at work. The idea of that extra money is likely motivating you to work harder and impress your boss.


2. Prizes

How much money do you spend at fairs or carnivals trying to win those silly little prizes the game booths offer? What about the fun prizes your friend offered for winning the games at her baby shower? Prizes are often great external motivators.

We can use this to our advantage by promising to buy ourselves something nice if we complete a certain task or activity.

3. Grades

This is one of the most common sources of extrinsic motivation and one we will all recognize. Even if you weren’t necessarily motivated by the possibility of getting good grades, your parents probably were.

4. Promotions/Recognition

When it comes to extrinsic motivation examples in the workplace, the chance of getting a promotion at work is a huge source of motivation at our jobs. We like the idea of being recognized for the work we do and feeling appreciated at something that can feel drawn out when we’ve been working somewhere for a while.

5 Ways to Utilize Your Extrinsic Motivation

Here is how to better use external drivers to enhance your performance, reach your goals and improve your life.

1. Use It to Spark Action

How many times have you told yourself: “If I do X, I will treat myself to Y”? For instance, “If I don’t cheat on my diet this week, I’ll allow myself a piece of cake on the weekend,” or “If I work hard and get that promotion, I’ll buy a nicer car.”

The truth is, when we see the “carrot” close in sight, it can make us more determined to get it.


Regarding human behavior, we tend to gravitate toward immediate rewards (I’ll take $50 today) vs. benefits expected sometime in the future ($100 in 6 months). In experiments, people consistently take the “now” option over the choice to have more but later.

The same applies to motivation—although internal incentives can give us much more in the long run, there is still a level of uncertainty because you often have to play the long game and wait for your passion to pay off, especially financially. There is also the question of whether you can feel truly fulfilled by doing things solely for your own gratification, even when no one recognizes your efforts, skills, or accomplishments.

2. Make Others (Or Yourself) Do What You What

Convincing other people to do what we want is undeniably a priceless skill. One of the best ways to achieve exactly this is to give them a compliment. It can be in the form of positive feedback or praise, but it’s an immediate reward that can work wonders on people through extrinsic motivation.

If you are a manager who wants to give your employees a push, ask a friend to do you a favor, or even perhaps make yourself do something you’ve been postponing—pay a compliment.

Of course, if you are always fishing for compliments or give yourself one too many, it may mean that you have a bit of a narcissistic streak running in your personality. This, of course, will make you very vulnerable to the Hedonic treadmill trap.


Alternatively, if you are trying to make others do what you want by playing to their soft side, you may be overstepping into the dangerous territory of Machiavellianism.

So, when you give others or yourself compliments, and receive them, make sure there is some truth in them.

3. Show Me the Money

Remember this epic phrase from the movie Jerry Maguire? Money is a controversial motivator.

Or, to put it in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s words:

“Money doesn’t make you happy. I now have $50 million, but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.”

And yet, money is still a powerful driver for many of us because of the many perks it brings to the table.

Instead of focusing on a number (“I want to have a million dollars in the bank”), think in terms of the benefits of enhancing your financials—mainly, the freedom it will give you and the reduced stress and worry.

4. Carrots and Sticks

“Carrots and sticks” simply means that in order to go above and beyond at what we do, employers use rewards (increase in salary, bonuses, recognition, positive feedback) or punishment (negative feedback, pay decrease, demotion). It’s been a hot topic with organizational psychologists for a while now regarding what works better and if the rewards-punishments approach is the best way to utilize extrinsic motivation.

There seems to be more evidence to support the rewards camp,[5]. These get better results as far as external motivators go.

But punishment also works. For instance, if you are afraid you may fail your test, this may push you to study harder. If you are scared of getting unfavorable feedback at your annual review, you will try to perform above average during the year.


You may not be happy or feel joy in doing these things, but the point is that you will likely do them anyway. Scaring yourself a little can be beneficial—as in “If I don’t study hard, I will flunk the test” or “If I don’t start eating healthy, I may have a heart attack.”

Although not the most pleasant way to seduce ourselves into doing what must be done, punishment can also do the trick regarding motivation.

Final Thoughts

Extrinsic motivation does quite well in certain situations and with certain people. It can be used to spring ourselves into action or make others do what we want them to. It can also yield rather predictable outcomes.

What’s more – it’s not shameful to be driven by extrinsic rewards. Of course, the intrinsically rewarding sources are better and more sustainable in the long run, but it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your goals if you rely on external incentives. Because they seem more straightforward and can bring foreseeable results, we all can and should use them to our advantage.

You simply must be mindful that doing something purely for glory, fame, or money will not last. Remember the hedonic treadmill?

Maybe true success can only be found at the crossroads of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. That is, enjoy what you do and reap the benefits of recognition and respect.



Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

What is Extrinsic Motivation and How Can You Use It?

Extrinsic motivation is an external incentive that encourages us to do a specific activity in order to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.

Examples include money, prizes, grades, and promotions/recognition.

Use extrinsic motivators as a “quick hit” to motivate you.

 Be mindful that doing something purely for the glory, fame, or money is not going to last.

True success can only be found at the crossroads of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.


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