Extrinsic Rewards: Where does our motivation come from?

More often than not extrinsic rewards are dangled in front of children and adults as a form of motivation. While this can be effective in getting someone to perform a task or activity to a certain extent, it can also have negative side effects on a person’s livelihood and behavior by reducing the amount of intrinsic motivation a person has to perform said activity or task at a later time.

Doing an activity because you want to is known as intrinsic motivation. In other words you “receive no apparent rewards except the activity itself,” as Deci said. Often, a person is motivated by intrinsic reasons when they find an activity interesting, challenging, competitive or enjoyable. Alternatively, extrinsic motivation is doing an activity for the pursuit of a goal (e.g. praise, trophy, money, victory). It has been shown that extrinsic rewards can have a direct effect on a person’s intrinsic motivation.

A study by Ledford Jr., Gerhart, & Fang outlined findings of previous studies of the effect extrinsic rewards has on intrinsic motivations: Deci and Ryan showed that extrinsic rewards, under specific conditions, have the ability to undermine intrinsic motivation. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett showed that extrinsic rewards have the ability to decrease intrinsic motivation. Frey and Jegan again showed how extrinsic rewards could crowd out intrinsic motivation. Gangé and Deci alternatively showed that extrinsic rewards, under certain conditions, could indeed enhance intrinsic motivation.

What this means is that although extrinsic rewards can be useful, it still can reduce the amount of intrinsic motivation a person has. A study by Edward Deci further proves this point as well as showing the effects money and verbal praise have on intrinsic motivation. In the study, Deci began with two hypotheses: (1) When money is used as a reward, intrinsic motivation will decrease, and (2) when verbal praise is used as a reward, intrinsic motivation will increase. For two out of the three experiments performed in the study, the effect of money as a reward was studied. Participants took part in performing a task in three different sections. In both experiments, the experimental group was given money as a reward for completing a task during the second section, but received no reward in the first or third sections. The control group received no monetary reward throughout all three of the sections.

The results from both of these experiments showed that interest and motivation to complete the task increased during the second section when money was a reward. However, when money as a reward was taken away in the third section, participants’ intrinsic motivation decreased to even lower than in the first section. This shows that once an extrinsic reward is introduced and subsequently removed, a person will lose motivation to complete a task. This, for example, can have negative consequences on the behavior of a child at school, showing that students who are strictly motivated by extrinsic motivation may exert the minimal amount of effort required to complete a task.

In the third of Deci’s three experiments, he tested the effect of verbal praise and reinforcement on motivation. The set-up was similar to the first two experiments, only instead of a monetary reward participants received verbal praise for the completion of a task. The results from this experiment showed that verbal praise and reinforcement as an extrinsic reward doesn’t decrease intrinsic motivation like with the use of money as a reward.

This point is further reinforced by Julie Kelsey who said, “Research from Kohn and Hufton, et al. suggest that effective praise can help develop intrinsic motivation.Their research indicates that praise should be limited and used more as acknowledgement.” With proper use of verbal reinforcement and encouragement, intrinsic motivation can increase, even though the act of the verbal praise is an extrinsic reward.

The idea that extrinsic rewards can undermine and overpower intrinsic motivation is an issue that can be applied to everyday life. Ask yourself if you enjoy a task or activity because you actually want to do it and are interested in the activity, and not because of an incentive being waved in front of you. All in all, don’t let the extrinsic reward hamper your interest level in an activity you once found enjoyable.