The Incentive Theory of Motivation

Are Actions Motivated by a Desire for Rewards?

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What forces are behind our actions? Do you get up and head to the gym each day because you know its good for you, or is it because of some type of external reward? 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.

According to one theory of human motivation, our actions are often inspired by a desire to gain outside reinforcement.

 The incentive theory is one of the major theories of motivation and suggests that behavior is motivated by a desire for reinforcement or incentives.

 A Closer Look

Incentive theory began to emerge during the 1940s and 1950s, building on the earlier drive theories established by psychologists such as Clark Hull. How exactly does this theory account for human behaviors? Rather than focus on more intrinsic forces behind motivation, the incentive theory proposes that people are pulled toward behaviors that lead to rewards and pushed away from actions that might lead to negative consequences. Two people may act in different ways in the same situation based entirely on the types of incentives that are available to them at that time.

You can probably think of many different situations where your behavior was directly influenced by the promise of a reward or punishment. Perhaps you studied for an exam in order to get a good grade, ran a marathon in order to receive recognition, or took a new position at work in order to get a raise.

All of these actions were influenced by an incentive to gain something in return for your efforts.

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.

Some Incentives Are More Motivating Than Others

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

  • 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. Essentials of psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2011.

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

Hockenbury, D. H. & Hockenbury, S. E. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2011.

Wong, L. Essential study skills. Boston: Wadsworth; 2012.

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