What Is Extrinsic Motivation and How Does It Work?

“Water! I need WATER!” my friend Tommy screamed out, causing every head in the sushi restaurant to turn to see what was going on. The rest of us just sat there laughing at him as he gagged, squirming in his chair. Should we not have been laughing at the misfortunate of another who was clearly in trouble? Were we insensitive to his plight? No, not in the way you might think.

Tommy was the victim of extrinsic motivation. He brought his misfortune upon himself by bragging about his ability to eat wasabi—so much so that it led to the emergence of the ever-popular dare as was usually the case in this type of situation. The dare was that he would not be able to eat the wasabi from all of our plates at once—the equivalent of a nice round ice-scream scoop. Tommy expressed otherwise with such bravado that it begged for a dare.

The dare had been spoken loud and clear in a way that anyone who’s ever seen The Sandlot can imagine. Tommy didn’t budge. He sat there waiting for us to escalate it to the next level, knowing we would go further. We weren’t about to give up, so we did the next logical thing. We pooled our minuscule financially strapped college student resources together and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Twenty bucks,” I said. “We’ll give you this twenty dollars if you eat that whole scoop of wasabi and don’t throw up.” “Deal.” He responded.

The extrinsic motivational stage was set. Tommy’s outcome was still unknown, but one thing was certain—succeed or fail, he was motivated to get the money.

So, what exactly was happening in Tommy’s eighteen-year-old brain? It’s all about the neurons. The answer lies in the brain circuitry known as the “reward system.”

Our Brain’s Reward System

Neurons in the different regions of the brain comprising the reward system communicate using dopamine. These neurons process rewards and subsequently motivate behavior. Neurons that release dopamine are activated when we expect to receive a reward. Dopamine also enhances reward-related memories.

It’s not the reward itself but the expectation of a reward that most powerfully influences emotional reactions and memories. Reward learning occurs when we experience something unexpected—when the actual reward differs from what we otherwise would predict. If a reward is greater than anticipated, dopamine signaling increases. If a reward is less than expected, dopamine signaling decreases.[1]

Tommy’s dopamine was firing strong due to both the expectation and his teenage cockiness. It’s not always a cocky teen that makes a silly decision—emotionally centered decision-making changes with age. Teens may engage in more risky behaviors because their brains are still maturing, and they are susceptible to being accepted by their peers. Older adults can also make more risky decisions as prefrontal cortex function diminishes with age.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation and How Does It Work?

Now that we’ve cleared up the mechanics of Tommy’s brain, Let’s take a more in-depth look to help you understand where it comes from and how it affects your life. What is extrinsic motivation and how does it work?

The American Psychological Association defines it as follows:

Extrinsic motivation is an external incentive to engage in a specific activity, especially motivation arising from the expectation of punishment or reward.[2] It sounds like, “I really want that promotion to make more money,” or in Tommy’s case, “I want that twenty dollars, so I’m going to eat this wasabi.”

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained.[3] It sounds like, “I’m going to work hard to get that promotion so I can be more fulfilled at work,” or in Tommy’s case, “I’m going to eat this wasabi because I enjoy the flavor.”

The example above was a clear-cut case of extrinsic motivation. Tommy was motivated by the financial reward leading him to engage in an activity he usually would not have partaken in.

Extrinsic motivation is reward-driven behavior. It’s a type of operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning. Psychologist B.F. Skinner is attributed to defining this learning method where the consequences of a response determine the probability of it being repeated.[4] This means that behavior rewarded and reinforced will likely be repeated, and behavior that is punished will occur less frequently. In the case of a bet like Tommy’s, the expectation of payment is the reward that reinforces the behavior.

Development of Extrinsic Motivation

So, where did Tommy’s behavior originate? From the time we are young, we learn in every situation and the environment from our parents, friends, teachers, and society. This typically occurs by mimicking behavior as all social species do. The impact constantly happens, whether we realize it or not.

At some point in Tommy’s past, he learned that he could be rewarded for his behavior. It may have been the dollar he received each time he brought home an A paper or even his monthly allowance that seeded the motivation. Whatever it was, it had a long-term impact.

Here are some examples from youth to help paint a clear picture that differs from Tommy’s.

Tangible extrinsic examples:

  • Participating in sports for trophies or awards
  • Cleaning your room to avoid getting yelled at by your parents
  • Competing in a contest to win a scholarship or prize
  • Studying because you want a good grade in a class

Psychological extrinsic rewards:

  • Doing charity work for attention
  • Helping a classmate for praise from the teacher
  • Doing something to avoid judgment from others

Extrinsic motivators continue to play a role in our lives as we develop and grow. One of the most impactful areas this is seen is work. Many of you reading this remember the first job you had as a teenager. It didn’t matter if you worked at a fast-food restaurant or the mall. Being a part of the working world meant one thing—a paycheck. If you don’t remember the transaction of getting hired, you should remember receiving your first paycheck.

Getting paid meant money in your pocket to spend on yourself and your desires. It meant independence. Gaining independence is a crucial stage of development in these formative years. Financial independence is but one component that has an impact for years to come.

The financial impact continues to be felt as youth transition to a career. Many individuals choose a career that will provide the most substantial financial reward over another that they will enjoy more or even love. These individuals are being led by extrinsic motivators. Tommy was not quite there yet, so he sought out money wherever he could.

Financial rewards are one of the greatest sources of extrinsic motivation in society today, but they are not the only type of motivators. Rewards or other incentives often provide substantial motivation and come in various forms. Cheering, praise, or fame can all be used as motivation in specific circumstances. These are also imbedded from our youth as we all remember the excitement of receiving a gold-star on our homework or cheers from the crowd as we performed on the field or stage.

Whether it is financial or otherwise, extrinsic motivation can play a role in our work and lives.

The Power of Extrinsic Motivation

When you compare extrinsic motivation to intrinsic, it seems that the former would be much more effective in our reward-based society. Ever heard the term “dangle the carrot”?

This is not always the case, Bugs Bunny. In 1964, psychologist Victor Vroom developed what he called expectancy theory to explain how extrinsic motivation works.[5] Based on his research, he concluded that for an extrinsic motivator to actually motivate, it needs to have three important elements:

  • Expectancy – a belief in the ability to yield the reward. People have different expectations and levels of confidence about what they are capable of doing.
  • Instrumentality – the perception expressed as a probability that there will actually be a reward.
  • Valence – the depth of the want for the rewards.

It’s important to note that Victor Vroom’s research was conducted with employees in a business, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all theory. Still, the facts remain that many of us will engage in an action based on a reward as was the case with my eighteen-year-old friend.

You may be wondering how Tommy fared in the wasabi-eating-bet. Let’s just say he didn’t return from the restroom for at least fifteen minutes after running in there like his hair was on fire. We never actually heard him vomiting, but he didn’t try to collect his twenty bucks either.

More About Motivation

Featured photo credit: Raja Sen via unsplash.com


[1] BrainFacts.org: Motivation: Why You Do the Things You Do
[2] American Psychological Association: extrinsic motivation
[3] American Psychological Association: intrinsic motivation
[4] Simply Psychology: What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work?
[5] Science Direct: Expectancy Theory

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