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 entrepreneurs how to level up their businesses to expand their social impact and spread positive change around the world.

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Last Updated on January 19, 2022

What Is Fear-Based Motivation And Does It Work?

What Is Fear-Based Motivation And Does It Work?

If you’ve ever thought or said something like this, then you are using fear-based motivation:

  • “If I don’t get that promotion, I’m going to be seen as a failure so I better stay up all night to work on this proposal.”
  • “If I speak up for school reform, the internet trolls are going to get me, so I better be quiet even though I care a lot about this issue.”
  • “If I don’t exercise enough, I’m going to look like crap, so I better go to the gym six days a week, even if my body is killing me.”

Fear-based motivation is exactly what it sounds like—getting yourself and others to do things out of fear of what will happen if you don’t do it and do it well.

What you might not know is that while fear-based motivation might work in the short term, it can have long-term detrimental effects on your performance, relationships, and well-being.

Is Fear-Based Motivation Helpful?

If using fear as motivation comes naturally for you, you aren’t alone. Our brains use fear to keep us out of trouble. Normally, you want to move away from what feels harmful towards what feels safe.

This brain function is important when there is a genuine threat to your well-being, like if there is a rattlesnake on the hiking trail. Your brain will use fear to motivate you to move away from the snake as quickly as possible. But when you use fear-based motivation to accomplish your life and career goals, the constant state of fear puts unnecessary stress on your mind and body and can end up working against you.

The Darkside of Fear-Based Motivation

Take, for example, when your trainer at your gym motivates you during your workout by yelling things like, “Bikini season is coming! You don’t want your cellulite to be the star of the show!” or “Burn off that piece of birthday cake you ate last night!”


Sure, you might be motivated to do ten more burpees, but what is going on in the back of your mind? You probably have an image of a group of people standing around you at the beach laughing at you in your bikini, or you feel guilty about eating that piece of cake and criticize yourself for not being able to control yourself.

Reliance on Negative Thinking

For most of us, this type of thinking causes stress and can bring down our energy levels and mood. The reliance on negative thinking is the problem with fear-based motivation. It forces us to put our attention on what is wrong or what could go wrong instead of anticipating and celebrating what is right. This, in turn, narrows our focus and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.

When your brain senses a threat, whether it’s a rattlesnake hiding in the grass or the possibility of being laughed at in your bikini, your brain will move you into a protective stance. Your vision narrows and you prepare to fight, flee or freeze.

You can probably imagine what this looks like in the case of a rattlesnake, but how does this impact your bikini experience?

The High Cost of Fear-Based Motivation

Imagine that you plan a beach vacation with your friends three months from now. The first thing you picture is sitting on the beach with your tummy rolls and cellulite. You immediately sign up for three months of boot camp classes at the gym and banish all sugar and booze from your diet. You are determined not to make a fool of yourself on the beach!

Will the fear of not looking like a supermodel under the beach umbrella motivate you to get in shape and eat better? Possibly. But at what cost?

For three months, every time you picture yourself looking “less than perfect” in your bikini, you feel fear of being ashamed. Shame makes you want to hide, and that makes it harder to find the motivation to go to the gym instead of sitting on the couch eating ice cream.

You become so focused on how you are going to look on the beach that you lose out on all the fun and joy of life. You pass up on going shopping with your friends for new outfits because you aren’t at your goal weight yet. You stop doing the things you love to do to spend more time at the gym. You avoid family gatherings where you will be confronted with tempting food. You over-train to the point of hurting yourself.

The Healthier Alternative to Fear-Based Motivation

Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good in your bikini! If that’s important to you, keep your goal in mind but change the way you motivate yourself. Instead of using the fear of feeling ashamed to motivate you, try using love-based motivation.

Love-based motivation uses love instead of fear to lead and inspire you. It comes from a different part of your brain than fear-based motivation. Love-based motivation comes from the part of your brain that is responsible for joy, creativity, and passion.

5 Questions of Love-Based Motivation

There are many ways to deploy love-based motivation. The trick is to use one or all of the following to motivate you towards your goal: empathy, curiosity, innovation, vision, and heart-centered action.

Here are five questions you can use to motivate yourself using love-based motivation.


1. What Would You Say to a Friend?

Chances are that you talk to your friends in a much kinder way and with more empathy than you talk to yourself. You wouldn’t tell a friend, “you better starve yourself and hit the gym three times a day to look good in that bikini!” Instead, you would probably say something like, “I’m so excited to go on this vacation with you! I can’t wait to spend time catching up while sipping margaritas on the beach.”

Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your friend.

2. What Are You Curious About Learning That Might Help You Get to Your Goal?

More often than not, achieving our goals is more about the journey it took us to get there than the goal itself. Curiosity makes journeys more fun. Perhaps you are curious about doing a triathlon but you don’t know how to run. If you spend three months learning to run, you would get into better shape and learn something new.

3. How Can You Get to Your Goal in a Way That Feels Good?

Using the “Yes, And” game is a great way to come up with innovative ideas for working towards your goals. If your first instinct is to go to the gym six days a week but you aren’t jazzed about it, find something that you like about that idea and make it better.

For example, if what you like about going to the gym is that you work up a sweat, what if instead of the gym, you join a dance class where you can learn some new moves to show off on your vacation?

4. What Is Important to You About Your Goal?

When you dig into your goal, chances are that you’ll find a deeper meaning. If your goal is to “look good in a bikini,” ask yourself why that’s important to you.


For example, “I want to look good in my bikini because I want to have fun on vacation.” Then, ask yourself how much having fun on your vacation depends on how you look in your swimsuit.

5. What Heart-Centered Action Can You Take That Will Help You Reach Your Goal?

Whether your goal remains bikini-focused or changes to ways of having a good time on your vacation, choose an action that you can take that feels like it is coming from a place of love instead of fear.

For example, suggest to your friends that you take scuba diving classes as a group before vacation. It will get you moving and bring your friends together.

Long-Term Happiness and Satisfaction

Fear-based motivation may help you achieve your goals in the short term, but it won’t lead to long-term happiness and satisfaction. Fear isn’t designed to be used for long periods, and you will eventually tire of the fear and give up on your goals. Love, however, is designed for longevity.

Finding your motivation in a place of love will fuel you to reach your goals, whether your goals are about feeling good in a bikini, getting a promotion at work, or speaking up for what you believe in.

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