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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Last Updated on July 29, 2021

How to Get Motivated Every Day When You Wake Up

How to Get Motivated Every Day When You Wake Up

It’s Monday morning. The alarm goes off. Do you know how to get motivated at that moment? What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you open your eyes? 

Are you excited to get up and go to work, or are you dreading the day and week ahead?

Whatever your response may be, ask yourself this question:

“What is it that makes you feel unmotivated?” What’s driving you to feel negative or positive about your Monday ahead? If you want to know how to get motivated, keep reading.

The Two Types of People

You likely know of people who have been doing the same thing for years and seem to not have any problem staying stagnant. Whether it be in their marriage, job, or personal endeavors, they seem to be getting along just fine without progressing towards anything “better.”

On the other hand, I’m sure you also know of individuals who focus on the positive, goals setting and are constantly pushing themselves to greater heights. Be it promotions at work, building a family, celebrating marriage milestones, traveling more, or going to school again, these individuals seem to constantly progress towards something that improves or enhances their life.

So what’s the difference between these two types of individuals?

What you feel capable of doing comes down to one thing: motivation. It’s the force, or lack of, that keeps driving you forward to overcome challenges and obstacles to achieve your goals.

Without motivation, you’ll give up after a few failed attempts, or even on the first tough challenge that comes your way. Or you’ll just remain where you are: unhappy yet not doing anything to progress ahead.


What Is Motivation, Really?

Whether you realize it or not, motivation is a huge force in your life, and it needs to be harnessed in order to excel and actually enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing on a daily basis. If you find yourself thinking, “I need motivation,” there are specific steps you can take.

Unfortunately, many overgeneralize the word motivation. We think of being either motivated or unmotivated as a simple “yes” or “no” state of being.

But motivation is not a switch. As discussed in the Fast Track Class – Activate Your Motivation, motivation is a flow. To feel motivated, you need to dive beyond the surface. Just reading a motivational quote, being encouraged by your friends or mentor, or writing out a short to-do list won’t help you build sustainable motivation in the long run.

You can think of the motivation that we want to achieve like the Sun (self-sustaining and long-lasting), which supplies a constant influx of energy to all life on Earth. Just like the Sun, your “motivation engine” has different layers, starting from the core and spreading out to the surface. The surface is what you see, but the real process is driven from the core (your internal motivation); and that’s the most important part.

If you can create a self-sustaining motivation engine, you’ll be able to find more meaning in your life and enjoy every minute of what you’re doing, which will make your roles and responsibilities less of a chore. 

Let me help you understand this motivation flow better by breaking down the motivation engine into 3 parts:

  1. Core – Purpose
  2. Support – Enablers
  3. Surface – Acknowledgement

The Third Layer: Surface

The outermost layer, also known as Acknowledgement, encompasses any type of external recognition that might give you motivation. It may come in the form of respect or recognition, such as compliments and praise.

Or it could be emotional support through encouragement, feedback, and constructive criticism. It could also be affiliation, where you have mutual companions or buddies sharing the same goal or burden with you.

One recent study pointed out that “rewards had a positive impact on work motivation but no significant relationship existed between reward and job satisfaction”[1].


Therefore, it’s important to recognize that rewards will motivate you, but they won’t necessarily make you happier in an undesirable situation.

This is generally what you see on the surface when you look at other people. You see the external acknowledgement, respect, and recognition they’re getting.

The Second Layer: Support

In essence, the second layer of the motivation engine (also known as Enablers) is what supports your goals. They can magnify the motivation core you have, or speed up the momentum that you build. Basically, they create favorable circumstances for things to go smoothly.  

If you want to know how to find motivation, positive enablers are key. This could include friends and family, or any support network you’ve created in life.

The Innermost Layer: Core

But what’s most important, and the true driving force behind your motivation flow, is the innermost core, your Purpose. Your purpose is what differentiates the motivated from the unmotivated, the achievers from the underachievers, the happy from the unhappy.

Your motivational core is your Purpose, and it is sustained by two things: having meaning, and forward movement. With these two as a foundation, you’ll have a power source that will feed you motivational energy indefinitely.

If you want to learn more about the Motivation Flow, join our Fast Track Class – Activate Your Motivation for free now!

How to Sustain Your Purpose

Having meaning is simple. If you want to learn how to find motivation, just ask yourself a question: Why?

Why are you pursuing a certain goal? If the reason is vague or unclear, then your motivational energy will be the same. While motivation provides you energy to do something, that energy needs to be focused somewhere. So without meaning, there is no direction for your energy to focus.


Yet, having a meaningful objective doesn’t mean you have to change the world or have a huge impact on society. The secret to meaningful work is simple: it should contribute value to something or someone that matters to you.

One study suggested creativity as one possible path to meaning, saying: “Many of the core concepts in work on the meaning of life, such as the needs for coherence, significance, and purpose or the desire for symbolic immortality, can be reached through creative activity”[2].

Next up is gaining forward movement. In short, this means to just keep moving. Like a snowball, motivation from having progress creates momentum. So to keep this up, you have to keep moving.

The good news is, your progress doesn’t have to be huge for you to recognize it. Small amounts of progress can be just as motivating, as long as they keep coming. Like driving a car, you may be really impatient if you’re at a complete halt. But, it lessens if you’re moving forward, even if you’re moving slowly.

Creating a simple progress indicator, like checklists or milestones, is a great way to visualize your small (and big) wins. They trigger your brain to recognize and acknowledge them, giving you small boosts of motivational energy.

This is why video games are so addictive! They’re full of progress indicators everywhere. Even though the progress is completely virtual, they’re still able to trigger the motivation centers in your brain.

Find out What Drives You Today

Why not take some time today and do a quick reflection of where you’re at now? Take one aspect of your life that you’d like to progress further in.

For example, it may be your current job. Start with your why. Write down your reasons for why you’re in the job that you’re in.

Then, think about your Motivation Core: your Purpose. Write down what it is within your job that gives you meaning, and what are some things that will help push you forward in life.


Once you have those points, it’s time to do a comparison. Does your current job help you make progress towards that purpose that you’ve written?

If it does, you’re on the right track. If it doesn’t, or if you’ve realized your life isn’t going where you want it to, don’t panic. There’re tools that can help you get through this. The Actionable Motivation On Demand Handbook is one of those effective tools that can help you always stay motivated. Get your own handbook and never lose motivation again!

Do your best to not focus on the negative. Review your goals and aim yourself in a positive direction, even if it means that you start small.

Final Thoughts on Staying Motivated

Happiness doesn’t need to be a vague term or illusion that you’re constantly chasing after with no end in sight. By finding your true motivation, you’ll be one step closer to realizing your happiness and finding meaning in everything you do.

You may have tried many solutions to help you stay motivated and found that none of them really have any impact. That’s because they bring about incremental changes only, and permanent change requires a holistic approach. It requires more than just focusing on one area of your life or changing one part of your routine or actions.

You want to make a fundamental change, but it feels like big, unknown territory that you can’t afford to venture into at this point in your life.

The truth is, taking your life to the next stage doesn’t have to be this complicated. So, if you’d like to take the first step to achieving your life purpose, the time to learn how to find motivation is now!

More on How to Find Motivation

Featured photo credit: Candice Picard via


[1] European Journal of Business and Management: Impact of Reward and Recognition on Job Satisfaction and Motivation
[2] Perspectives on Psychological Science: Finding Meaning With Creativity in the Past, Present, and Future

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