Published on March 31, 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 is a Positive Change Expert and the author of "12 Hours of Heaven; Lessons for a Better World". He teaches men and women how to unlock their amazing potential to create an incredible future for themselves and others.

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Last Updated on April 14, 2021

No Motivation? 7 Great Ways to Overcome Loss of Motivation

No Motivation? 7 Great Ways to Overcome Loss of Motivation

No matter who you are, you will have moments where you feel like you have no motivation to do anything at all. Even highly effective and successful people will have times when they feel a lack of motivation. However, it is the way they deal with this “down” time that keeps them moving forward and helps them to accomplish great things.

Motivation is one of the keys that will push you into taking action and keep you moving each day. If you find yourself saying “I have no motivation,” you will tend to procrastinate on the things that are supposed to get done. Eventually, you will put things off and give up on your project or task.

This is what’s happening to many people out there. They say they want to become rich by investing or running their own business on the Internet. However, whenever they need to study the company report or build their website or write an action plan, they can’t get motivated to work. This is where most people give up.

Fortunately, there are solutions to this. Here are the 7 great tips to try when you have no motivation.

1. Remember Why You Want to Do It

If you feel a lack of motivation when you want to type an article, try to think about why you want to do it in the first place. The reasons you do something are the driving force behind everything you do. It is only when your reason is strong and emotional enough that you will do whatever it takes to accomplish the task.

When you feel no motivation at all, it is because the reason behind what you’re doing is not strong enough. Think about it: why do people stop smoking? Most of the time, people stop smoking because they have a strong reason; if they continue to smoke, they may suffer serious health problems or lose their loved ones.

So why do you do what you do? Do you know why you want to achieve your goals and your targets? Make sure your reasons are strong and emotional. When you have no motivation, think about the purpose why you want to do it.


2. Envision the Success If You Do It, and Feel the Regret If You Don’t

Visualization is a very powerful tool that is available to us, and it is free of charge. You can think and imagine whatever you want, wherever and whenever you wish to.

If you think that visualization does not work, try to imagine vividly that you walk to your kitchen, open your fridge door, see a big yellow lemon, and take it out. After that you take a knife and cut the big yellow lemon in half.

Imagine this vividly and with as much detail as possible. After you cut the lemon, take the half up and squeeze the lemon so that the juice drops into your mouth. Feel your hand’s pressure, hear the sound it makes while being squeezed, and imagine the sour lemon juice going into your mouth. Now, do you feel more saliva in your mouth or nothing?

Chances are, if you follow through and visualize it vividly, you will have more saliva in your mouth. This is because your mind cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined.

This is what makes visualization such a powerful tool. Think about it, if your dream is to drive a Mercedes Benz, imagine the vivid picture of you driving. Imagine the model you want, the color, the smell of the seats, feel the steering, and hear sound of the engine roaring. Do you think your mind will eventually make it real one day?

The point is that when you imagine and visualize things in your mind, you will feel more motivated to do it. When you dream about the car you want, you will create the motivation from within. Try to do this when you feel like procrastinating and have no motivation.

You can learn more about using visualization in this video:


3. Create a Supportive Environment

Do you know that your surroundings and your environment can affect your mood?

You will become the people you are around. If you are always surrounded by successful people who talk about their growth and learning, you will learn and join the conversation as well. This is how you can overcome a lack of motivation and use your environment to boost your energy levels.

On the other hand, if you are surrounded by negative people who always gossip and talk about other people, you will feel negative and have no motivation to work as well.

Ensure your work space is a good and supporting environment, so that you will want to wake up each morning and go to work.

Remember, your environment is important and can affect you. Change your environment instead of letting it manage you.

4. Change Your Physiology and Stay in Action

Motion creates emotion. Whenever you feel down and have no motivation to do your work, change your physiology. Try out this exercise:

Try to feel sad by thinking about all the sad things that have happened to you, and notice your physiology. Notice your breath, your shoulders, and your facial expression. Where are your hands, and do you look up or do you look down?


When you are in a sad state, your physiology will change to reflect it in the short term, affecting your motivation level. Conversely, if you are feeling good and energetic, your physiology will reflect that. For most people, when they feel great and motivated, their breathing will be faster, their hands gesture will be active, they talk faster, and their eyes look forward[1].

This is why it’s often easy to tell whether someone is upset or happy just by looking at their body language. When you change your physiology, you change your emotional state, as well.

5. Let Others Motivate You

Reading a book, listening to music, or watching something inspiring can help when you have no motivation. What you can do is spend a minimum of 30 minutes each day reading an inspiring book before you start your day. This way, you will make sure you start in the right state of mind and are able to go through the day, even if you face challenges

Videos and audio can be very helpful in helping you find motivation, too. For example, when you are down and feeling no motivation, spend time watching something inspiring on YouTube or listen to a motivational speech. You will be pumped up in no time and ready to go.

6. Dream Big, Start Small, and Act Now

This is a very powerful principle if you are struggling with motivation and feel overwhelmed. When you dream, you have to dream big so that your dream can inspire you. However, when you start, you have to start small because you want to make it into a habit so that you will automatically take action consistently every day.

When your motivation is gone, start small. You want to build up the momentum from there. Once you start to take action, the motivation will come, and you will be able to continue to do more.

Take baby steps, and gradually increase from there on. For example, if you want to exercise and work out five days a week, try to schedule it and start small. Even if it is just five minutes a day, commit to it.


The key is to build the momentum and make it easy for you to start. Once you get the engine started, gradually increase your motivation.

For more tips on taking action, check out Lifehack’s Free Guide: The Dreamers’ Guide for Taking Action and Making Goals Happen.

7. Take Breaks When Needed

Sometimes you just want to take a break when you have no motivation. Remember, success is not a destination; it is a journey that you need to go through for a long period of time. Many people mistake success as doing one great thing and think that success will come over overnight.

However, almost all the successful people who have accomplished amazing results are able to do so because they persist long enough. They take action consistently and never give up. Real success takes years to build.

Make sure you get enough rest and take a break when you need to. Understand your own capabilities and how much you can do. If you have done your work, you can reward yourself and take a break. You will notice that after resting, you will feel more energetic, motivated, and ready to take on the world again.

The Bottom Line

If you find yourself asking, “Why do I have no motivation?” it may be time to take a good look at how you’ve aligned your priorities and where you can make changes each day. Overcoming a lack of motivation means finding what matters on a daily basis and taking small steps toward it when the energy you’re given.

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Featured photo credit: Agnieszka Boeske via


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