What are intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

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Motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, is integral to all human behavior, both in developing new behaviors and in attempting to create changes in behavior.
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Motivation is an integral part of human behavior. It is an important determinant in why a person may pursue a particular activity. Intrinsic motivation is something internal, either primal (such as the need to eat) or learned (such as the knowledge of healthful eating). Extrinsic motivation is something external and may be both positive (such as rewards) or negative (such as punishment). Repeated exposure to extrinsic motivation may help create an intrinsic motivation. For example, students who are motivated to learn to receive good grades may develop a desire to learn.

The simplest goal for using motivation in behavior change is to create a habit. An early example is the experiment by Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. Ringing a bell (extrinsic motivation) and then providing food (extrinsic motivation) resulted in the dog salivating in anticipation of eating the food (intrinsic motivation). Removing the middle step after the behavior was set did not change the salivation reaction to the bell. This is also seen in humans and is related to the primal need to eat for survival. A difference between human and animal behavior related to motivation is that humans can translate a behavior to other situations. People often eat for pleasure, not just hunger or need. When realtors suggest that homeowners bake cookies before an open house, they are making use of humans’ ability to translate behaviors. The salivation habit activated when potential buyers smell the cookies is associated with positive memories, which translates to a positive reaction to the house.

Motivation in the Educational Setting

In the 1970s, much of educational psychology revolved around using motivation theory to achieve high performance. Government agencies demanded high achievement in exchange for funding. Early research on how motivation affected student outcomes consistently showed that high self-efficacy was related to positive outcomes. Students with high self-efficacy are confident in their ability to succeed even when obstacles or barriers are present. Teachers encouraged self-efficacy by removing failure as an option.

Soon educators and researchers realized that a false sense of self-efficacy was being created. Educational psychology saw the emergence of achievement goal theories, which held that students needed to be goal directed and that goals should guide decision making and behavior within the context of achievement. If the goal was to develop competence, goal theory suggests that the perception of ability becomes a central variable. Students have to be able to differentiate the concepts of luck, task difficulty, and effort from ability. The terms used to suggest this orientation are “task” and “ego.” When a student is task oriented, all actions are aimed at achieving mastery, learning, or perfecting a task (true self-efficacy). When a student follows an ego-oriented goal, the student perceives success when he or she can perform better than peers, and the perceived level of success is highest when the student believes natural ability, not effort, to have been responsible for that success (false self-efficacy).

Research has suggested that if students are task oriented, they are more likely to persevere to the point of mastery, whereas ego-oriented students are competitive toward other students and the goal of their efforts is to be better than the other students while expending little or no effort. Relating this back to motivation, the task-oriented students are experiencing intrinsic motivation as they pursue learning for learning’s sake. The ego-oriented students are experiencing extrinsic motivation; they are primarily interested in their class standing and care little how they achieve the grade. This can lead to behavior that might not be morally acceptable, such as cheating.

Motivation in Professional Settings

Extrinsic motivation, often in the form of money, is a strong influence in many professional settings. For example, the emphasis in professional sports is increasingly on winning, which is tied to salaries, jobs, and other possible remuneration such as product endorsements and sponsorships. Winning or losing the Super Bowl or the World Series can mean a difference of millions of dollars, and in some cases, the jobs of players and coaches. This show-me-the-money attitude is not limited to the sports world. In the everyday workplace, researchers have shown that extrinsic financial compensation is a stronger motivator for performance among workers than the intrinsic motivation provided by a pleasant environment or job satisfaction.

Because extrinsic motivation has been shown to increase worker performance, many companies have cut back on intrinsic rewards and concentrated on purely extrinsic rewards for their employees. This, in turn, causes employees to focus even more on extrinsic rewards. This can have the effect of employees choosing business options that will maximize their money-making potential by furthering their career rather than options that will promote the company’s well-being. Professional athletes, who probably became proficient in their sports through a love of the sport and of physical activity, eventually associate excellence in sports with extrinsic rewards such as money. This can lead, among other things, to bad decisions regarding when to play with an injury or other health issue. Many of these athletes gradually lose the intrinsic rewards they received from playing their sport, and therefore, when they retire, they often stop being active, gain weight, and suffer from the same lifestyle-related diseases as do their relatively inactive peers.


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