What Are Extrinsic Motivation and Rewards?

Money is one example of an extrinsic motivator. Jamie Grill / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise. This type of motivation arises from outside the individual, as opposed to intrinsic motivation, which originates inside of the individual.

Think about your own motivation for reading this article. Are you trying to learn the material so that you can get a good grade in your psychology class?

This means that you are studying the material to gain external reinforcement (getting a good grade), which means that your behavior is extrinsically motivated.

When you want to get someone to do something, such as getting your kids to do their homework, what is the best way to motivate them? Many people might start by offering some type of reward like a special treat or toy. This is a great example of extrinsic motivation since the behavior is motivated by a desire to gain an external reward. Unlike intrinsic motivation, which arises from within the individual, extrinsic motivation is focused purely on outside rewards.

Definitions of Extrinsic Motivation

  • "Extrinsic motivation refers to our tendency to perform activities for known external rewards, whether they be tangible (e.g., money) or psychological (e.g., praise) in nature."
    (Brown, Psychology of Motivation, 2007)
  • "Motivation can come from the outside, such as the motivation to win medals, receive financial rewards, and attract attention from the media. This is known as external, or extrinsic, motivation because it involves participation in sport for some kind of reward that is external to the process of participation."
    (Karageorghis & Terry, Inside Sport Psychology, 1969)

    Extrinsic Rewards and Motivation

    Do extrinsic rewards increase motivation?

    While offering rewards can increase motivation in some cases, researchers have also found that this is not always the case. In fact, offering excessive rewards can actually lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation.

    The tendency of extrinsic motivation to interfere with intrinsic motivation is known as the overjustification effect.

    This involves a decrease in intrinsically motivated behaviors after the behavior is extrinsically rewarded and the reinforcement is subsequently discontinued.

    In a classic experiment by Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett (1973), children were rewarded lavishly for drawing with felt-tip pens, an activity that they had previously enjoyed doing on their own during play time. When the children were later offered the chance to play with the pens during play time, the children who had been rewarded for using them previously showed little interest in playing with the pens again. The kids who had not been rewarded, however, continued to play with the pens.

    Why would rewarding an already intrinsically rewarding behavior lead to this sudden disinterest? One reason is that people tend to analyze their own motivations for engaging in an activity. Once they have been externally rewarded for performing an action, they assign too much importance to the role of the reinforcement in their behavior. Another possible reason is that activities that initially feel like play or fun can be transformed into work or obligations when tied to an external reward.

    Extrinsic rewards can be an important tool in motivating behavior, but experts caution that they should be used with caution, especially with children.

    Extrinsic motivators are best applied in situations where people have little initial interest in performing the activity or in cases where basic skills are lacking, but these rewards should be kept small and should be tied directly to performing a specific behavior. Once some intrinsic interest has been generated and some essential skills have been established, the external motivators should be slowly phased out.


    • "The overjustification effect imposes a limitation on operant conditioning and its effectiveness in applied settings. It tells us that we need to be careful in our use of operant conditioning so that we do not undermine intrinsic motivation. It also tells us that we must consider the possible cognitive consequences of using extrinsic reinforcement."
      (Griggs, Psychology: A Concise Introduction, 2010)
    • "To sense the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, you might reflect on your own current experience. Are you feeling pressured to get this reading done before a deadline? Worried about your course grade? Eager for rewards that depend on your doing well? If yes, then you are extrinsically motivated (as, to some extent, all students are). Are you also finding the course material interesting? Does learning it lead to you feel more competent? If there were no grade at stake, might you be curious enough to want to learn the material for its own sake? If yes, then intrinsic motivation also fuels your efforts."
      (Myers, Exploring Psychology, 2005)


    Brown, L. V. (2007). Psychology of motivation. New York: Nova Publishers.

    Griggs, R. A. (2010). Psychology: A concise introduction. New York: Worth Publishers.

    Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129–137.

    Lepper, M. R. & Greene, D. (1974). Effects of extrinsic rewards on children's subsequent intrinsic interest. Child Development, 45, 1141-1145.

    Karageorghis, C. I. & Terry, P. C. (1969). Inside Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Myers, D. (2005). Exploring psychology, Sixth edition in modules. New York: Worth Publishers.

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