Types of Motivation

When faced with a difficult situation concerning motivation, parents often turn to offering external rewards or threatening to revoke perceived privileges; such actions are all forms of extrinsic motivation but some methods are more effective than others. While these tactics can be effective, often they are overused and in some cases can result in a decrease of motivation instead of an increase in the longer-term. Therefore, it is important to understand when it is appropriate to use extrinsic motivation and what forms of extrinsic motivation are most effective and least damaging.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

There are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is a person’s innate desire and propensity to engage in actions that he genuinely enjoys.  Those who are intrinsically motivated act out of interest and for the sense of challenge that activity provides.  Conversely, extrinsic motivation arises from environmental incentives and consequences. Instead of engaging in an activity because of a natural propensity, extrinsic motivation arises from some consequence that is separate from the activity (i.e. rewards and punishments.)

There is a fine difference between positive and negative “reinforcers”. 

The traditional sense of extrinsic motivation focuses on incentives and consequences, (a.k.a. reinforcers and punishments).  Reinforcers are any extrinsic event that increases the likelihood of behavior.  This event can vary greatly per person ranging from giving praise to giving monetary rewards.  There are two types of reinforcers: positive and negative.  Positive reinforcers are stimuli that, when presented, increase the likelihood of a desired behavior.  Examples of common reinforcers include trophies, paychecks, approval, allowing an extra hour of television, etc.  Negative reinforcers are stimuli that when removed, increase the likelihood of the desired behavior.  An example of these would be the ring of an alarm, the removal of an unwanted chore, etc. 

Punishers are stimuli that decrease the probability of future undesired behavior. Examples of which include jail terms, criticism, ridicule, etc.  Often the latter two, the negative reinforcer and the punisher are confused.  A clarification of their difference is shown with the following example.  If a child refuses to clean his room and is reprimanded, is the reprimand a negative reinforcer or a punisher?  This clarification depends entirely on the intention of the reprimand.  If it is to serve as something to suppress the child’s future cluttering of their room, then it is a punisher.  If in the future, the child cleans his room to avoid being reprimanded, it then is a negative reinforcer.

Punishers should be used sparingly.

Though often the first tactic that parents resort to when their child is misbehaving is some form of punishment, academic research and our deep client experience has shown that punishments are ineffective in the long run.  Punishments are often used because they yield immediate and viewable compliance, gives the one giving the punishment a sense that they are doing something, or gives the person giving the punishment a sense of satisfaction that the punished has received justice.  However, studies show that punishers can yield unintentional, long-term, worrisome side-effects including increased aggression, poorer quality of parent-child relations, poor mental health (i.e. being more susceptible to depression), etc.  Therefore for motivating your student, it is better to use reinforcers rather than punishers.

When should and shouldn’t you use Extrinsic Motivation?

When a student does well in school or does well in an activity, often parents feel compelled to award him in some way in the hope that this behavior will continue and strengthen into some kind of super motivation. However, in these cases, it is really best to leave the child to his own devices.  Studies show that when a student is intrinsically motivated, adding extrinsic motivation only serves to undermine and therefore lessen the intrinsic motivation.

There is an exception to this finding, however.  If rewards are unexpected or if they are intangible, then they generally do not undermine intrinsic motivation.  The telltale sign that someone expects a reward is an “if-then” or “in-order-to” orientation.  An example would be “If I do my homework, then I can watch TV.”  Meanwhile, intangible rewards refer to rewards that are verbal in nature.  Examples of intangible rewards include praising a job well done.  This act is a bit unsettling for many in western cultures as our society depends heavily on expected and tangible rewards.  It becomes even more unsettling when we add that intrinsic motivation is not the only thing at risk.  Expected and tangible rewards also interfere with the process and quality of learning.  In other words, rewards shift the learner’s attentions away from the mastery of a subject in favor of the attainment of extrinsic gains.

Extrinsic motivation is okay if intrinsic motivation is not present.

Many now are probably questioning whether it would be ok to use extrinsic motivation if a student is not previously intrinsically motivated.  The answer to that is yes. If there is no intrinsic motivation of a subject beforehand, it is not harmful to use extrinsic motivation in those subject areas as there is no intrinsic motivation to undermine. However, one must remember that extrinsic motivators still undermine the quality of performance and interfere with the process of learning, distracts attention away from the basic and often important reasons for doing the task.  The bottom-line is that there is generally a better way to enhance motivation, without the use of extrinsic motivation.


  1. Don’t overuse extrinsic motivators.
  2. When possible, try to focus on the increase of desired behaviors rather than the decrease of undesired behaviors.
  3. Try to find different ways to motivate that do not employ extrinsic motivation.
  4. If one must use extrinsic motivation, make it as unexpected as possible. So, if your student knows that he will get something for completing some activity, make it so that he only receives rewards some of the time on a variable schedule only you know.
  5. Read our article on “Fostering Motivation.”

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