Last Updated on April 19, 2021

What Is Extrinsic Motivation and How Does It Work?

What Is Extrinsic Motivation and How Does It Work?

“Water! I need WATER!” my friend Tommy screamed out, causing every head in the sushi restaurant to turn to see what was going on. The rest of us just sat there laughing at him as he gagged, squirming in his chair. Should we not have been laughing at the misfortunate of another who was clearly in trouble? Were we insensitive to his plight? No, not in the way you might think.

Tommy was the victim of extrinsic motivation. He brought his misfortune upon himself by bragging about his ability to eat wasabi—so much so that it led to the emergence of the ever-popular dare as was usually the case in this type of situation. The dare was that he would not be able to eat the wasabi from all of our plates at once—the equivalent of a nice round ice-scream scoop. Tommy expressed otherwise with such bravado that it begged for a dare.

The dare had been spoken loud and clear in a way that anyone who’s ever seen The Sandlot can imagine. Tommy didn’t budge. He sat there waiting for us to escalate it to the next level, knowing we would go further. We weren’t about to give up, so we did the next logical thing. We pooled our minuscule financially strapped college student resources together and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Twenty bucks,” I said. “We’ll give you this twenty dollars if you eat that whole scoop of wasabi and don’t throw up.” “Deal.” He responded.

The extrinsic motivational stage was set. Tommy’s outcome was still unknown, but one thing was certain—succeed or fail, he was motivated to get the money.

So, what exactly was happening in Tommy’s eighteen-year-old brain? It’s all about the neurons. The answer lies in the brain circuitry known as the “reward system.”


Our Brain’s Reward System

Neurons in the different regions of the brain comprising the reward system communicate using dopamine. These neurons process rewards and subsequently motivate behavior. Neurons that release dopamine are activated when we expect to receive a reward. Dopamine also enhances reward-related memories.

It’s not the reward itself but the expectation of a reward that most powerfully influences emotional reactions and memories. Reward learning occurs when we experience something unexpected—when the actual reward differs from what we otherwise would predict. If a reward is greater than anticipated, dopamine signaling increases. If a reward is less than expected, dopamine signaling decreases.[1]

Tommy’s dopamine was firing strong due to both the expectation and his teenage cockiness. It’s not always a cocky teen that makes a silly decision—emotionally centered decision-making changes with age. Teens may engage in more risky behaviors because their brains are still maturing, and they are susceptible to being accepted by their peers. Older adults can also make more risky decisions as prefrontal cortex function diminishes with age.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation and How Does It Work?

Now that we’ve cleared up the mechanics of Tommy’s brain, Let’s take a more in-depth look to help you understand where it comes from and how it affects your life. What is extrinsic motivation and how does it work?

The American Psychological Association defines it as follows:

Extrinsic motivation is an external incentive to engage in a specific activity, especially motivation arising from the expectation of punishment or reward.[2] It sounds like, “I really want that promotion to make more money,” or in Tommy’s case, “I want that twenty dollars, so I’m going to eat this wasabi.”


On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained.[3] It sounds like, “I’m going to work hard to get that promotion so I can be more fulfilled at work,” or in Tommy’s case, “I’m going to eat this wasabi because I enjoy the flavor.”

The example above was a clear-cut case of extrinsic motivation. Tommy was motivated by the financial reward leading him to engage in an activity he usually would not have partaken in.

Extrinsic motivation is reward-driven behavior. It’s a type of operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning. Psychologist B.F. Skinner is attributed to defining this learning method where the consequences of a response determine the probability of it being repeated.[4] This means that behavior rewarded and reinforced will likely be repeated, and behavior that is punished will occur less frequently. In the case of a bet like Tommy’s, the expectation of payment is the reward that reinforces the behavior.

Development of Extrinsic Motivation

So, where did Tommy’s behavior originate? From the time we are young, we learn in every situation and the environment from our parents, friends, teachers, and society. This typically occurs by mimicking behavior as all social species do. The impact constantly happens, whether we realize it or not.

At some point in Tommy’s past, he learned that he could be rewarded for his behavior. It may have been the dollar he received each time he brought home an A paper or even his monthly allowance that seeded the motivation. Whatever it was, it had a long-term impact.

Here are some examples from youth to help paint a clear picture that differs from Tommy’s.


Tangible extrinsic examples:

  • Participating in sports for trophies or awards
  • Cleaning your room to avoid getting yelled at by your parents
  • Competing in a contest to win a scholarship or prize
  • Studying because you want a good grade in a class

Psychological extrinsic rewards:

  • Doing charity work for attention
  • Helping a classmate for praise from the teacher
  • Doing something to avoid judgment from others

Extrinsic motivators continue to play a role in our lives as we develop and grow. One of the most impactful areas this is seen is work. Many of you reading this remember the first job you had as a teenager. It didn’t matter if you worked at a fast-food restaurant or the mall. Being a part of the working world meant one thing—a paycheck. If you don’t remember the transaction of getting hired, you should remember receiving your first paycheck.

Getting paid meant money in your pocket to spend on yourself and your desires. It meant independence. Gaining independence is a crucial stage of development in these formative years. Financial independence is but one component that has an impact for years to come.

The financial impact continues to be felt as youth transition to a career. Many individuals choose a career that will provide the most substantial financial reward over another that they will enjoy more or even love. These individuals are being led by extrinsic motivators. Tommy was not quite there yet, so he sought out money wherever he could.

Financial rewards are one of the greatest sources of extrinsic motivation in society today, but they are not the only type of motivators. Rewards or other incentives often provide substantial motivation and come in various forms. Cheering, praise, or fame can all be used as motivation in specific circumstances. These are also imbedded from our youth as we all remember the excitement of receiving a gold-star on our homework or cheers from the crowd as we performed on the field or stage.


Whether it is financial or otherwise, extrinsic motivation can play a role in our work and lives.

The Power of Extrinsic Motivation

When you compare extrinsic motivation to intrinsic, it seems that the former would be much more effective in our reward-based society. Ever heard the term “dangle the carrot”?

This is not always the case, Bugs Bunny. In 1964, psychologist Victor Vroom developed what he called expectancy theory to explain how extrinsic motivation works.[5] Based on his research, he concluded that for an extrinsic motivator to actually motivate, it needs to have three important elements:

  • Expectancy – a belief in the ability to yield the reward. People have different expectations and levels of confidence about what they are capable of doing.
  • Instrumentality – the perception expressed as a probability that there will actually be a reward.
  • Valence – the depth of the want for the rewards.

It’s important to note that Victor Vroom’s research was conducted with employees in a business, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all theory. Still, the facts remain that many of us will engage in an action based on a reward as was the case with my eighteen-year-old friend.

You may be wondering how Tommy fared in the wasabi-eating-bet. Let’s just say he didn’t return from the restroom for at least fifteen minutes after running in there like his hair was on fire. We never actually heard him vomiting, but he didn’t try to collect his twenty bucks either.

More About Motivation

Featured photo credit: Raja Sen via



[1] Motivation: Why You Do the Things You Do
[2] American Psychological Association: extrinsic motivation
[3] American Psychological Association: intrinsic motivation
[4] Simply Psychology: What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work?
[5] Science Direct: Expectancy Theory

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Rick Ornelas

Rick Ornelas is a professional coach, speaker, and author of 12 Hours of Heaven; Lessons for a Better World. He teaches men and women to unlock their amazing potential and change the world around them.

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Published on September 27, 2021

What Is Incentive Motivation And Does It Work?

What Is Incentive Motivation And Does It Work?

We’ve all needed a bit of inspiration at some time in our lives. In the past year or two, that need most likely has grown. Who hasn’t been trying to shed those extra pounds we put on during the pandemic? Who hasn’t felt the need to fake a little enthusiasm at joining yet another Zoom call? Who hasn’t been trying to get excited about trekking back into the office for a 9 to 5 (longer if you add in the commute)? Feeling “meh” is a sign of our times. So, too, is incentive motivation, a way to get back our spark, our drive, and our pursuit of the things we say we want most.

In this article, I’ll talk about what incentive motivation is and how it works.

What Is Incentive Motivation?

Incentive motivation is an area of study in psychology focused on human motivation. What is it that gets us to go from couch potato to running a marathon? What spurs us to get the Covid vaccine—or to forgo it? What is it that influences us to think or act in a certain way? Incentive motivation is concerned with the way goals influence behavior.[1] By all accounts, it works if the incentive being used holds significance for the person.

The Roots of Incentive Motivation

Incentive motivation’s roots can be traced back to when we were children. I’m sure many of us have similar memories of being told to “eat all our veggies” so that we would “grow up to be big and strong,” and if we did eat those veggies, we would be rewarded with a weekend trip to a carnival or amusement park or playground of choice. The incentive of that outing was something we wanted enough to have it influence our behavior.


Growing up, incentive motivation continues to play a major role in what we choose to do. For example, while we may not have relished the idea of spending years studying, getting good grades, pursuing advanced degrees, and graduating with sizeable debt from student loans, a great many of us decided to do just that. Why? Because the end goal of a career, a coveted title, and the associated incentives of financial reward and joy in doing something we love were powerful motivators.

One researcher who believes in the power of incentive motivation is weight management expert, co-author of the book State of Slim, and co-founder of the transformational weight loss program of the same name, Dr. Holly Wyatt. Her work with her clients has proven time and again that when motivation fizzles, incentives can reignite those motivational fires.

“Eat more veggies, exercise, keep track of my weight: These things and more DO work, but bottom line, you gotta keep doing them. Setting up rituals and routines to put your efforts on auto-pilot is one way. And along the way, the use of both external and internal motivators helps keep people on track. External motivation sources are those things outside of ourselves that help to motivate us. They’re powerful, like pouring gasoline on a fire. But they may not last very long. Internal motivators are more tied into the reasons WHY we want to reach our goals. In my State of Slim weight loss program, we spend a lot of time on what I call ‘peeling back the onion’ to find the WHY. I think the internal motivators are more powerful, especially for the long-term, but they may take longer to build. They’re the hot coals that keep our motivational fires burning.”

Examples of Incentive Motivation

In the way of incentive motivation, specific to the external motivators, Dr. Wyatt challenges her clients to commit to changing just one behavior that will help them reach their weight loss goals. Clients must then agree to a “carrot” or a “stick” as either their reward for accomplishing what they say they will do or as their punishment for falling short. Those incentives might be something like enjoying a spa day if they do the thing they said they would do or sweating it out while running up and down the stairwell of their apartment building a certain number of times as punishment for not following through.


Whatever they choose, the goal must be something they really want, and the incentive must be something that matters to them enough to influence their behaviors in reaching those goals. Some people are more motivated by some sort of meaningful reward (a carrot) whereas, other people are more motivated by some sort of negative consequence or the taking away of a privilege (the stick).

Another example of incentive motivation is playing out currently with companies and government entities offering perks to people who get the Covid vaccine. Nationwide, offers are being made in the way of lottery tickets, cash prizes, concert seats, free admission to events and discounts for food, and even free drink at local restaurants and bars. The list of incentives being offered to the public to increase vaccination rates is pretty extensive and quite creative.[2]  These incentives are financial, social, and even hit on moral sensibilities. But is this particular incentive motivation working?

Remember that a key to incentive motivation working is if the individual puts importance on the reward being received on the ultimate goal. So, not all incentives will motivate people in the same way. According to Stephen L. Franzoi, “The value of an incentive can change over time and in different situations.”[3]

How Does Incentive Motivation Differ from Other Types of Motivators?

Incentive motivation is just one type of motivating force that relies on external factors. While rewards are powerful tools in influencing behaviors, a few other options may be more aligned with who you are and what gets you moving toward your goals.


Fear Motivation

In many ways, being motivated by fear is the very opposite of being motivated by incentives. Rather than pursuing some reward, it’s the avoidance of some consequence or painful punishment that sparks someone into action. For example, married couples may “forsake all others” not out of love or commitment but out of a fear that they may be “taken to the cleaners” by their spouses if their infidelities are revealed.

Another example wherein fear becomes the great motivator is one we’re hearing about more and more as we’re coming out of this pandemic—the fear of being poor. The fear of being poor has kept many people in jobs they hate. It’s only now that we see a reversal as headlines are shining a light on just how many workers are quitting and refusing to go back to the way things were.

Social Motivation

Human beings are social creatures. The desire to belong is a powerful motivator. This type of social motivation sparks one’s behavior in ways that, hopefully, result in an individual being accepted by a certain group or other individuals.

The rise of the Internet and the explosion of social media engagement has been both positive and negative in its power to motivate us to be included among what during our school days would be called “the cool kids” or “cliques” (jocks, nerds, artsy, gamers, etc.). We probably all have experienced at one time or another the feelings associated with “not being chosen”—whether to be on a team to play some game or as the winning candidate for some job or competition. Social rejection can make or break us.


Before You Get Up and Go…

Know that, especially during these challenging times, it’s “normal” and very much “okay” to feel a lack of motivation. Know, too, that external motivators, such as those we’ve talked about in this article, can be great tools to get your spark back. We’ve only touched on a few here. There are many more—both external and internal.

Remember that these external motivators, such as incentive motivations, are only as powerful as the importance placed on the reward by the individual. It’s also important to note that if there isn’t an aligned internal motivation, the results will more than likely be short-lived.

For example, losing a certain amount of weight because you want to fit into some outfit you intend to wear at some public event may get you to where you want to be. But will it hold up after your party? Or will those pounds find their way back to you? If you want to be rewarded at work with that trip to the islands because you’ve topped the charts in sales and hustle to make your numbers, will you be motivated again and again for that same incentive? Or will you need more and more to stay motivated?

Viktor Frankl, the 20th-century psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is quoted as having said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” As important as external motivators like incentives may be in influencing behaviors, the key is always to align them with one’s internal “why”—only then will the results be long-lived.


So, how might incentive motivation influence you and your behavior toward goals? Knowing your answer might keep you energized no matter what your journey and help to further your successes.

Featured photo credit: Atharva Tulsi via


[1] Britannica: Incentive motivation
[2] National Governors Association: COVID-19 Vaccine Incentives
[3] verywellmind: The Incentive Theory of Motivation

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