Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: What’s the Difference?

Key Takeaways

  • Intrinsic motivation describes the undertaking of an activity for its inherent satisfaction while extrinsic motivation describes behavior driven by external rewards or punishments, abstract or concrete.
  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual, while extrinsic motivation comes from outside the
  • Psychologists such as Skinner and Thorndike have been creating models of externally-motivated learning since the early 20th century; however, theories of intrinsic motivation emerged in the century later. Whether intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are mutually exclusive is a popular debate in motivational psychology.
  • Academics and professionals alike have applied theories of motivation to management principles as well as educational situations.
  • Research suggests that when something we love to do, like icing cakes, becomes our job, our intrinsic
    and extrinsic motivations to do it may change.

Scholars have described several key differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Mitchell, 2013):

Intrinsic Motivation Extrinsic Motivation
Purpose of participation: Enjoyment in the process itself Purpose of participation: Benefits derived from participating
Emotions experienced: Pleasant (enjoyment, freedom, relaxation) Emotions experienced: Tension and pressure (social approval is not under direct control)
Rewards: Effective rewards (enjoyment, pleasure) Rewards: Social or material rewards
More likely to stay with a task long-term More likely to do a necessary task of little interest
Self-motivation to take on new tasks and innovate Increases social learning compliance
Self-motivation to take on new tasks Increases speed of task
Slower behavioral change Removing reward results in motivation loss

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation involves the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for any obvious external reward (Oudeyer and Kaplan, 2009).

If we are intrinsically motivated, the reward is the sheer challenge and enjoyment of the task and the satisfaction of seeing it through.

Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards.

Ryan and Deci (2000, p. 56),

Types of Intrinsic Motivation

Researchers identified several different types of intrinsic motivation. One of the most notable of these frameworks is the “4 C’s” — challenge, curiosity, control, and context.


White (1959) described the idea of the effectance or mastery motives, which suggests that people seek out challenges and new skills to master solely because of the pleasure of accomplishment.

For example, as White notes, young children may spend great amounts of time learning how to walk and talk without extensive extrinsic reinforcement (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

Achievement-based motivation aims to achieve a goal for personal development reasons. People with achievement motivation may feel worthy when the feat is achieved.

For example, someone may undertake a multi-day hike up a mountain because of the feeling of accomplishment that reaching the peak gives them.


Berlyn (1960) described curiosity and other forms of motivation involving learning as inherent to people’s constant process of getting to know their worlds.

For example, hiding something from a child generally creates a very strong motive for the child to discover what has been hidden (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

Competence motivation, also called learning motivation, is an intrinsic motivation driven by curiosity and a willingness to develop skills. For example, when a salesperson learns new sales techniques because they want to learn something new and improve their work over expecting an external reward.


The first person to explicitly coin the term intrinsic motivation was Hunt (1961). Hunt focused on the motivational value of having a sense of control.

Following Piaget’s observations that even infants seem to undergo a systematic process of experimentation and exploration, Hunt emphasized that people find exercising control over the environment to be inherently motivating.


In the field of educational psychology, Bruner (1961) wrote about the importance of contextualizing learning — showing students the relevance and utility of skills taught in school for solving problems or accomplishing intrinsic goals in the larger world.

What is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation describes behavior driven by external rewards or punishments. These consequences can be tangible, such as monetary loss or shame, or abstract, such as social respect or shame.

Extrinsic motivation is a construct that pertains whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome. Extrinsic motivation thus contrasts with intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing an activity simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself, rather than its instrumental value.

Ryan and Deci (2000)

The fundamental difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is that intrinsic motivation comes from within, while extrinsic motivation comes from the outside.

However, the two are not mutually exclusive — for instance, someone working on completing a project may be extrinsically motivated to finish to meet a teammate’s deadline, but intrinsically motivated because they enjoy the project and want to produce high-quality work (Sennett, 2021).

Therefore, our motivations are often a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Researchers have suggested the importance of high initial interest in deliberately selecting activities that are of high intrinsic interest.

While expected tangible rewards can undermine interest in activities of high initial interest, they can enhance interest in tasks originally of little initial interest (Calder & Staw, 1975; Danner & Lonky, 1981; Loveland and Olley, 1979; Sansone & Harackiewicz, 2000).

Types of Extrinsic Motivation

  • Reward-Based Motivation: reward-based motivation describes motivation resulting from external rewards, tangible or abstract. For example, an employee may be motivated to meet a sales target because of the promise of a bonus.
  • Power-Based Motivation: power-based motivation is a form of extrinsic motivation reliant upon the desire to exert control on others. For example, a leader may be motivated to lead and inspire people to overcome challenges.
  • Fear-Based Motivation: Finally, fear-based motivation describes the desire to avoid an extrinsically negative result. For example, a manager may threaten to fine those who are late to work, or a student may study for a test out of fear of a bad grade.

When to Use Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsically motivated behaviors are performed because of the sense of personal satisfaction that they
bring, while extrinsically motivated behaviors are performed in order to receive something from others.

Sansone and Harackiewicz suggest that there are three variables that can affect the effect of rewards on later motivation (2000):

Perceptions of Continued Instrumental Value

Receiving extrinsic rewards can convey information about the likelihood of further tangible or socially extrinsic rewards in future related situations. Those who receive a tangible reward for a particular activity or accomplishment in one setting may expect a similar reward for a similar activity or accomplishment in the future.

Receiving a reward, regardless of whether or not it is available in the future, can convey that an individual, group or institution would be pleased by and is likely to approve of one’s engagement in similar tasks in the future.

The promise of continued extrinsic tangible or social rewards can motivate to engage in a previously rewarded activity, regardless of whether it was of initial intrinsic interest to the person (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

Perceptions of Personal Competence 

Extrinsic rewards can also communicate information about competence, and receiving a reward can enhance someone’s perceptions of competence. Thus, increasing someone’s perceived competence can lead to increases in intrinsic motivation (Sansone, 1986).

These perceptions are more likely if rewards were based on performance rather than merely engagement or completion (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

Perceptions of External Control

extrinsic rewards can also convey information about someone’s level or personal control or autonomy. Receiving extrinsic rewards can decrease perceptions of autonomy and thus subsequent intrinsic motivation.

Subsequently, people may be less likely to engage in similar tasks when they do not expect tangible or social extrinsic rewards (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

Empirical Research

Psychologists have posited two types of motivation theories: dualistic and multifaceted. While dualistic theories divide motivation into two types, intrinsic and extrinsic, multifaceted theories recognize a number of genetically distinct motives, such as hunger, curiosity, positive self-regard, fear, sex, and power (Reiss, 2004).

For the first half of the 20th century, psychologists focused primarily on instrumental learning and extrinsic motivation. Typically, psychologists who conducted such studies attempted to link the receipt of an arbitrary reinforcer to the performance of an arbitrary response.

For example, Thorndike’s early studies of problem-solving in cats (2017) and Skinner’s work on elementary learning in rats and pigeons (2019) involved rats, cats, or pigeons being taught to press a bar, nudge a panel, or peck keys in order to obtain food, water, or a relief from pain.

These researchers were able to teach animals to perform complex sequences of actions (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).
However, in the latter half of the 20th century, psychologists posited a number of challenges to this model of extrinsic motivation.

Particularly, theorists sought to champion forms of “intrinsic motivation” — motivations seemingly intrinsic to many activities regardless of rewards (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

Shortly after psychologists differentiated between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, they created various hypotheses about the relationships between these two types of motivation.

Summary of Research Findings

  1. Noncontingent external rewards are less likely to produce detrimental effects and more likely to produce positive effects on later intrinsic motivation than rewards contingent on task engagement, completion, or performance.
  2. Expectation and receipt of an extrinsic reward for engaging in an activity was sufficient to
    produce decreased intrinsic interest in the activity (Lepper & Greene, 1975).
  3. Intangible extrinsic rewards (such as verbal feedback) are less likely to produce adverse effects than tangible rewards.
  4. Rewards providing evidence of someone’s competence has more positive effects on intrinsic motivation than rewards that do not provide information about competence.
  5. Researchers have also suggested the importance of high initial interest in deliberately selecting activities that are of high intrinsic interest to participants in the original experiments; while expected tangible rewards can undermine interest in activities of high initial interest, they can enhance interest in tasks originally of little initial interest (Calder and Staw, 1975; Danner and Lonky, 1981; Loveland and Olley, 1979; Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

The effects of extrinsic rewards on children’s intrinsic motivation

In the early 1970s, three laboratories found that offering extrinsic rewards for something of intrinsic interest to someone actually undermined subsequent intrinsic interest in those activities (Deci, 1971; Kruglanski, Friedman, and Zeevi, 1971; Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett, 1973; Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

In Deci’s 1971 experiment, researchers offered undergraduate students $1 for each three-dimensional manipulative puzzle that they solved correctly.

While doing this, Deci observed the amount of time that students spent working with the same activity when the experimenter left the laboratory, meaning that there was no longer a monetary reward for completing the activity.

While students who did not receive payment dependent upon whether or not they solved the puzzles continued to work on the same puzzles after the researchers left, students in the extrinsic incentive condition spent less time with the puzzles, as they no longer held an incentive value.

According to Deci and Ryan’s (1985) self-determination theory, extrinsic incentives can undermine intrinsic interest. For example, consider a boy who loves to play football for the sake of playing football who is then offered money for winning.

According to self-determination theory, the extrinsic incentives — such as money and winning — undermine the boy’s intrinsic enjoyment of football. In the future, according to this theory, the boy will be less likely to play football in the absence of an extrinsic reward (Reiss, 2012).

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as distinct constructs

Generally, early experimental research suggests that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are opposed (Deci, 1971; Kruglanski, Friedman, and Zeevi, 1971; Lepperr, Greene, and Nissbett, 1973).

Deci (1971) examined the effect of verbal rewards for performance on the puzzle task. After solving the puzzle task, researchers gave students the feedback that their time to the solution was “much better than average” than their peers.

The receipt of these verbal rewards increased later intrinsic motivation (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).
Another study supporting that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are opposed was conducted by Kruglanski et al. (1971), who offered half of a sample of Israeli high school students an extrinsic incentive for participating in a series of experiments in the laboratory.

Those given an extrinsic incentive for participating in the tasks described themselves as less interested in the activities, and their performance on the tasks themselves suffered.

For example, they showed less creativity in listing unusual uses for everyday objects, lower recall of the activities they had just undertaken, and were less likely to show significant Zeigarnik effects (a higher recall of uncompleted or interrupted tasks) (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

The last of the initial experiments to show extrinsic and intrinsic motivation’s opposition was conducted by Lepper et al. (1973). In these experiments, Lepper et al. selected children on the basis of their high levels of intrinsic interest in drawing pictures with markers in preschool classrooms.

The researchers then asked the children to do the same activity under one of three conditions: the expected award condition, where children were shown a reward and asked if they would like to work on the activity in order to win one of the rewards; the unexpected-award condition, where children received the reward and feedback at the end of the session; and the no-award condition, where children received verbal feedback but no tangible reward.

Again, upon observing the children later, the researchers found that only those in the expected-reward condition lost interest in drawing with the markers (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000). These findings shaped Deci and Ryan’s (1985) self-determination theory .

Despite an early line of research arguing that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are mutually exclusive, more recent findings, such as those of Lepper et al. (1997) have found that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are not necessarily in negative correlation with each other.

For example, Lepper et al. ‘s studies of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in students found that there was a significant positive correlation between curiosity and interest (intrinsic motivators) and attempting to please the teacher or receive a good grade (extrinsic motivators).

This persisted when the studies were replicated in larger populations of students (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000).

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as a continuum

Ryan and Deci (2000) stressed the notion that extrinsic and intrinsic motivators can combine in the self-determination continuum.

According to the self-determination continuum, people can be motivated — where their psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are not met, intrinsically motivated (where all of these needs are met) or somewhere in-between.

Ryan and Deci describe the last case as extrinsic motivation in the form of external regulation, introjected regulation, identified regulation, or integrated regulation (2000).

How Do Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Motivation Influence Learning?

Western thinkers ranging from Willliam Blake to Charles Dickens and Mark Twain have traditionally portrayed schools as a source of drudgery, ennui, and misery (Sansone and Harackiewicz, 2000), and educational scholars have acknowledged the lack of motivation students seemingly display in American classrooms (e.g., Bruner, 1962; Silberman, 1970).

In the face of the poor performance of American students in cross-national comparisons of academic accomplishment (e.g. Stevenson, Chen, and Lee, 1993; Stevenson and Stigler, 1994), developmental decrease in motivation in American schools had been of theoretical interest.

One set of explanations for the decline in children’s intrinsic motivation is the role of social control in the American classroom (Winnett and Winkler, 1971).

Some authors have noted that social control can increase as children progress through school (Condry, 1978). In particular, Eccles et al. notes that as early adolescents develop a thirst for increased autonomy and personal growth, schools seem to increase their focus on discipline, provide fewer opportunities for decision-making, and assign less cognitively challenging coursework (1993).

In educational settings, students are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation to learn when they feel a sense of belonging and respect in the classroom. This internalization can be enhanced if the evaluative aspects of the classroom are de-emphasized and if students feel that they exercise some control over the learning environment.

Furthermore, providing students with activities that are challenging, yet doable, along with a rationale for engaging in various learning activities can enhance intrinsic motivation for those tasks (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.