The Incentive Theory of Motivation

Are Actions Motivated by a Desire for Rewards?

Incentive theory
Image: Stuart Miles /

There are many different reasons why we do things. Sometimes we are motivated to act because of internal desires and wishes, but at other times, our behaviors are driven by a desire for external rewards. The incentive theory is one of the major theories of motivation and suggests that behavior is motivated by a desire for reinforcement or incentives.

Definitions of Incentive Theory

  • "According to this view, people are pulled toward behaviors that offer positive incentives and pushed away from behaviors associated with negative incentives. In other words, differences in behavior from one person to another or from one situation to another can be traced to the incentives available and the value a person places on those incentives at the time."
    (Bernstein, 2011)
  • "Building on the base established by drive theories, incentive theories emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Incentive theories proposed that behavior is motivated by the "pull" of external goals, such as rewards, money, or recognition. It's easy to think of many situations in which a particular goal, such as a promotion at work, can serve as an external incentive that helps activate particular behaviors."
    (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2003)

How Does Incentive Theory Work?

In contrast with other theories that suggest we are pushed into action by internal drives (such as the drive-reduction theory of motivation, arousal theory, and instinct theory), incentive theory instead suggests that we are pulled into action by outside incentives.

You can liken incentive theory to operant conditioning. Just as in operant conditioning, where behaviors are performed in order to either gain reinforcement or avoid punishment, incentive theory states that your actions are directed toward gaining rewards.

What type of rewards? Think about what type of things motivate you to study hard and do well in school. Good grades are one type of incentive. Gaining esteem and accolades from your teachers and parents might be another. Money is also an excellent example of an external reward that motivates behavior.

In many cases, these external rewards can motivate you to do things that you might otherwise avoid such as chores, work, and other tasks you might find unpleasant.

Obviously, not all incentives are created equal and the rewards that you find motivating might not be enough to inspire another person to take action. Physiological, social, and cognitive factors can all play a role in what incentives you find motivating. For example, you are more likely to be motivated by food when you are actually hungry versus when you are full. A teenage boy might be motivated to clean his room by the promise of a coveted video game while another person would find such a game completely unappealing.

"The value of an incentive can change over time and in different situations," notes author Stephen L. Franzoi in his text Psychology: A Discovery Experience. "For example, gaining praise from your parents may have positive incentive value for you in some situations, but not in others. When you are home, your parents' praise may be a positive incentive.

However, when your friends visit, you may go out of your way to avoid receiving parental praise, because your friends may tease you."

Important Observations About Incentive Theory

  • Incentives can be used to get people to engage in certain behaviors, but they can also be used to get people to stop performing certain actions.
  • Incentives only become powerful if the individual places importance on the reward.
  • Rewards have to be obtainable in order to be motivating. For example, a student will not be motivated to earn a top grade on an exam if the assignment is so difficult that it is not realistically achievable.

Learn more about the various theories of motivation.


Bernstein, D. A. (2011). Essentials of psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Franzoi, S. L. (2011). Psychology: A discovery experience. Mason, OH: South-Western, Cengage Learning.

Hockenbury, D. H. & Hockenbury, S. E. (2003). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

Wong, L. (2012). Essential study skills. Boston: Wadsworth.

Continue Reading