Monday, June 02, 2014

Which is better, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

Stress for Success

June 3, 2014 

In my last article I shared self-motivation advice from Dr. Mary Ann Chapman whose suggestion seems counter-intuitive: daily keep in front of you the negative consequences of making no changes where you know you should change. So a person with painful arthritis who knows he should exercise but can’t quite make himself do it should keep reminders of sore joints in front of himself daily. Perhaps he could hang an advertisement for arthritis medicine that shows red, achy joints. Gross but possibly effective.

Another way to influence yourself is to search for intrinsic motivators, which can actually work, versus extrinsic ones that tend not to work as well or for very long.

Intrinsic comes from within yourself. Intrinsic motivation is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself rather than needing external pressure or a reward. You want to take an action because it will help you achieve something you intrinsically value. So, losing ten pounds could be intrinsically motivating if you work at it to help you feel better physically.

Intrinsic motivation engages you in a behavior that is personally rewarding so you’re performing an activity for its own sake. Examples include:
  • ·         Participating in a sport you find enjoyable;
  • ·         Doing word puzzles because you find them challenging;
  • ·         Taking on work problems because they interest you;

Extrinsic motivation occurs when you do something to earn a reward or to avoid a punishment like:
  • ·         Studying because you want your parents to be proud of you;
  • ·         Cleaning your house to avoid others’ negative judgments of you;
  • ·         Earn lots of money to impress others;
  • ·         Lose ten pounds so others think you look good;

Which of these two motivators is more likely to be effective?

Studies have shown that offering excessive external rewards for an already internally rewarding behavior may actually lead to a reduction in its intrinsic worth, like kids rewarded for playing with a toy they already enjoyed. In a study, they became less interested in it after being externally rewarded.

Yet extrinsic motivation can help in situations to:
·         Spark your interest in something you have no initial curiosity about;
·         Learn new skills or knowledge, which once learned may become intrinsic motivators;
·         Be a source of feedback, allowing you to know when your performance has achieved a standard deserving reinforcement;

Something to learn from this information is to avoid extrinsic motivators where:
·         The person already finds an activity intrinsically rewarding;
·         Offering a reward may make a “play” activity seem more like “work;”

Even though intrinsic motivation is usually more effective, it’s not always possible. So use extrinsic rewards sparingly perhaps to get you to complete a task where you have no internal motivation.

Here are three important conclusions regarding extrinsic rewards’ influence on intrinsic motivation:
  1. 1.    Unexpected external rewards typically do not decrease intrinsic motivation. For example, you love working on a particular project and are intrinsically motivated to do so. Then your boss extrinsically rewards the team with dinner out. You’ll likely stay intrigued with or without a reward.
  2. 2.    Praise and positive feedback can help increase internal motivation, especially when what you’re being rewarded for is done better in comparison to others.
  3. 3.    A warning to contemporary parents: Intrinsic motivation decreases when external rewards are given for doing minimal work. Parents heaping lavish praise on their child every time she completes a simple task, sets her up to be less intrinsically motivated to perform that task in the future.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations have their uses. Make it a conscious choice which one you use to make it as effective as possible.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at