Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivations

Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior driven by internal processes and internal rewards.

Why do you go to work? Why have you decided to go the gym? Why did you buy an Ice cream? Every single action we perform is driven by a different set of motivations. And these motivations can come from many different sides, which at the end, influence our behavior and actions. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations help us understand how this works.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivations


Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior driven by internal processes and internal rewards. It originates from within you.

Some popular scientific definitions for intrinsic motivation are:

  • Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.(Coon and Mitter, 2010)
  • Intrinsic motivation refers to the reason why we perform certain activities for inherent satisfaction or pleasure; you might say performing one of these activities is reinforcing in-and-of itself.(Brown, 2007)

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How it works

Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external processes such as money, vacation days, etc. It originates from outside you. In fact, social recognition and praise are also extrinsic motivations even though they are not tangible or financial as they originate from outside you.

And some popular definitions for extrinsic motivations are:

  • 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, 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, 1969)

Why do children build sandcastles?


Let’s think about a simple example – why do children build sandcastles? They don’t get paid to build it, or holidays or even chocolates for it. So, why do they do it?

Let’s think about another one, this time a little bit more complicated – why did the American public really work towards putting a man on the moon? You don’t get paid extra for working on this project. It doesn’t improve your standard of living. And when you think of it, there were no tangible benefits of putting a man on the moon, especially in 1969, to the general public. So, why did they do it?


In the first case, the child was probably motivated by curiosity, by seeing his creation come to life, his or her control over the environment, sensation of improvement by building better castles, etc. And in the second case, the American public was motivated by the challenge, by the curiosity of what the moon actually was, etc. Such motivations which are internal in nature are intrinsic motivations. In the latter case of landing on the moon, there are also a bevy of non-financial extrinsic rewards such a social recognition, praise, etc.

Why does it matter at work?


In a workplace, there is always a complex interplay of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Typically as prosperity increases, intrinsic motivations become more important. A construction worker would care much more for a steady paycheck than for the structure he is building. And he would probably leave if he was offered a job for slightly higher pay. However, a top-notch software worker would probably quit her job at Apple or Google, to start her beer brewing company!

While these are fun examples, for most of us, we need that perfect balance of internal and external motivations to be happy.In well-balanced work environments, the quantity of work performed can be increased using extrinsic rewards whereas the actual quality of work is influenced more by intrinsic motivations.


Tailoring these motivations is no simple feat. Research has shown that when a child is rewarded for playing with toys that they are already having fun with, their enjoyment and propensity for playing with them actually decreased. What this means in a workplace setting is that, under similar circumstances, the more you pay someone, the lesser they will work!

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How it works
Coon, D. & Mitter, J. O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior with concept maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Brown, L. V. (2007). Psychology of motivation. New York: Nova Publishers.
Karageorghis, C. I. & Terry, P. C. (1969). Inside Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.