Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Motivation is an interesting driver because what motivates someone may be completely different for someone else.

When motivating ourselves, and our children, to complete a task, it can be useful to remind ourselves of the power of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. 


Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is when we seek a reward, or want to avoid punishment. When extrinsically motivated, we are working towards a goal that has been set by someone else. 


Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is tapped into when the task you are doing makes you feel good, regardless of the outcome.  Intrinsic motivation is typically correlated with our values, and is something that rewards us with a feeling of pride and self-worth. It relies on autonomy and a sense of purpose.

Intrinsic motivation is driven by inspiration, while extrinsic motivation is driven by obligation. 


Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation


What is the impact on engagement and learning?

Studies have shown that intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence and enhances engagement, and that intrinsically motivated learning is more effective than extrinsic. 

The autonomic drive of intrinsic motivation can be initiated by an external influence, and fostered over time by reinforcement and repetition. For example, when having a child participate in chores, using language such as "we all help out because we are all valuable members of this family who work together to get things done" can, over time, give children a sense of worth, with regard to self and family, which can become an intrinsic motivator. 

The intrinsic benefits of participating in a task is like a seed that can be planted, and that will expand and flourish, given the right environment. This will include factors such as positive reinforcement, encouragement, affirmative language and consistency. 


Studies have shown that adding an extrinsic motivation to a situation where someone is already intrinsically motivated, can reduce the benefits of intrinsic drive by reframing the experience as something which is associated with reward. 

To expand on the previous example of chores, any feeling of contribution and satisfaction (intrinsic motivation) may be minimized  if the child is financially rewarded for their chores (extrinsic motivation). So dangling a carrot in front of your child to encourage them to complete a task, regardless of how good your intentions are, may not only not be necessary, but can get in the way of innate motivations. 

 That said, external motivators such as praise, encouragement, and tangible rewards such as stickers on a chart, can be useful tools to reinforce positive behavior and help a new system become a routine. For further reading on the question of whether or not to reward our children, refer to this excellent article

Extrinsic motivators are a part of life

While the science around the benefits of intrinsic motivation is clear, our days are full of extrinsic motivators that cannot be avoided. We need to get to work on time or we will be late for a meeting, our child needs to complete an assignment to get a grade, we need to feed the dog because he is hungry. 

So how do we improve our chances of completion when we are working from extrinsic motivation? Or simply put, how do we motivate ourselves to do something that we don’t really want to be doing?

1) Wherever possible, try to incorporate something that brings joy or a meaningful experience into an otherwise boring or downright unenjoyable task. 

For example, when cleaning out the garage, listen to some banging tunes or an inspiring podcast.  Make the task more about the experience than the objective.  

 When your children are doing chores, encourage humor while completing their chores, like telling jokes, or speaking in silly voices, or doing a funny walk. 

 Anything that makes a task fun and enjoyable will make it infinitely more likely to get it done.

2) Focus on the feeling that you will get when you complete a task. 

When you find yourself procrastinating or lacking motivation, take a moment to imagine how you will feel when that task is done.  Visualizing being fulfilled, accomplished, clever, satisfied, proud, or any other positive emotion can be a powerful motivator as it will boost your dopamine levels and start a cascade of positive neural feedback 


3) Attach a meaningful purpose to an objective. 

We all have things that we don't want to do, and they often come at times when we feel we have no energy or time to do them. One powerful mental "switch" can be to attach a meaningful purpose, or align a core value, with a task or objective. 

Let's take the daily example of meal prep, which often comes at a time of the day when energy and motivation is low. 

Instead of:

"I need to cook dinner"

Elaborate to:

"I need to cook dinner so that my family can eat a nourishing meal tonight" 

Or even further: 

" I need to cook dinner so that my family can eat a nourishing meal tonight which will help them have energy for their day tomorrow"

Or further still:

"I need to cook dinner so that my family can eat a nourishing meal tonight which will help them have energy for their day tomorrow while helping them to stay fit and healthy". 

The task is the same but attaching a meaningful purpose makes the motivation ENTIRELY different. Zooming out and including the "why" in the "what" is a powerful way to shift focus and to gain motivation, especially when energy is low. 

Being aware of what motivates us is a powerful resource when we need to complete a task. 

Being aware of the power of intrinsic motivation when parenting our children, provides an incredible opportunity to help them find their own drive, and purpose, which will become an infinite resource for the rest of their lives. 

1 comment

This is one of the “easiest to read” explanations of intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation that I have read. How can I get permission to reprint this?

Christine Donavan April 02, 2022

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