The Extrinsic Motivation vs Intrinsic Motivation Blur

We hear a lot about the virtues of intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation, but what’s the difference and does it really matter anyway? Fundamentally, where intrinsic motivation is said to arise from within oneself for self-administered dopamine-based reward, extrinsic motivation is said to be due to the rewards or penalties imposed by others. In the brain, both can be related to activity in the striatum, with intrinsic motivation also being linked to activity in the insula, a region associated with sensing internal feedback and emotions, and likely linked to basic motivational needs (as identified in Grawe’s consistency theory) at a non-conscious level. This suggests that while both can, in theory, motivate people to act or not act, the choices backed by the more intuitive and less cognitive wants, needs and anticipated rewards are likely to be backed with greater commitment and determination, irrespective of objective “rationality”. That suggests that intrinsic motivation is more likely to engage discretionary effort and attention, but does that mean it’s “better”?

Perhaps partially as a social movement toward rejecting the loss of control or perceptions of manipulation inherent in traditional reward/penalty-based theories (e.g. reinforcement theory), intrinsic motivation is gaining popular support as people have been shown to be more likely to engage their best efforts when self-driven and self-directed. We see this every day in the effort people put into hobbies, passions, personal interests and in using and developing personal strengths – but we also see people making choices and allocating effort relating to externally-imposed consequences – this is a natural survival-oriented learning method for most vertebrate species, and informs the continual updating or reinforcement of the basic valuation process as described  by The Neuroscience of Motivation.

To assume that the discretionary allocation of attention and effort is only aimed at actions that come under the banner of intrinsic motivation, being not dependent on consequences granted by others, is not correct. For example, the huge amounts of time, effort and expense people are driven to dedicate to gaining social acceptance, popularity and advancement clearly illustrates the blurring of those theoretical boundaries – gaining approval (an extrinsic reward) helps me to feel social acceptance and place (an intrinsic need).

Further, in life, and especially in the workplace, we have to do things that are purposeful and extrinsically rewarded by things like pay, appreciation and respect which are only conditionally offered to us by others. For example, someone may be intrinsically motivated to cook as the feelings, smells and taste of achievement cross with their interests, pleasurable sensations, feelings of competence, and ability to make choices and direct their own actions while potentially experiencing a state of “flow” (check out Csikszentmihalyi’s book of that title). It’s easy to see that for some people cooking could be seen as intrinsically motivating. Another person might have to cook because it is their job or responsibility – or perhaps what started as a passion, when autonomy is lost, becomes not only less intrinsically rewarding, becomes intrinsically dissatisfying (research supports this). In that case, it is more likely that they will do only what is required to satisfy the needs of others and gain those extrinsic rewards. Clearly, intrinsically rewarding work is more likely to produce better results, from outputs to engagement to personal well-being, on the basis that they also meet the needs of others.

Other challenges for distinctions include:

  • The mesolimbic dopamine pathway does not compare where the reward comes from, only its likely risk-effort-reward sum. Dopamine doesn’t differentiate according to the source of the motivation. However, the risk/effort/reward sum is not calculated rationally, with intrinsic emotion-laden factors (especially fear/loss aversion) carrying extra weight, with extrinsic factors often required to aid better decision making.
  • An extrinsic motivation that doesn’t have any intrinsic value is … not a motivator! For example, praise from respected peers (described as an extrinsic motivation) links to our basic need for self-esteem protection and enhancement, giving it intrinsic value in providing confirmation of preferred identity, self-worth, social place and so on. Similarly, offering $1000 to most people for performing a safe, basic task is likely to motivate them to do it, where offering the same amount for the same task to a billionaire is unlikely to motivate them as it has no intrinsic meaning for them. Rather, accepting money for performing that task might detract from their preferred self-image and only serve to demotivate them. Either way, if an externally offered or imposed reward / loss has absolutely no intrinsic consequence, it is unlikely to make it past the valuation stage.
  • Further, the brain is designed to learn through experiences interacting with the people and world. It quickly learns that some actions cause people or environments to grant us safety or reward, while others cause pain and punishment. Through those lessons people modify behaviours to maximise gain and minimize threat and loss. This is a natural response to extrinsic rewards, being those that are purely derived from the externally-imposed consequences of our actions.

So should we forget the concepts of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and motivations? The short answer is no, and for the following reasons:

  • Tasks that are extrinsically-biased are likely to be performed only to a base standard – just enough to get the reward or avoid the penalty, whereas tasks that are intrinsically-biased are more likely to be performed to the satisfaction of the individual, which is typically to a higher level of quality &/or productivity.
  • Thinking about tasks that are extrinsically-biased is more likely to focus on avoidance of loss, and therefore reduce cognitive capacity, perhaps except in working out how to minimize effort for the same or higher reward or increase reward for the same or less effort. This is not about productivity, it’s about getting a better deal.
  • Rewards and penalties that are heavily extrinsically-biased involve significant loss of control, autonomy, confidence or connection to people, purpose, values or ethics, detracting from available mental capacity, effort, resilience, fulfilment and well-being. These are indicated in orange and red in the figure above and should be avoided as the dominant focus of any employment relationship despite being observed in the underlying fairness of the employment relationship.
  • Highly intrinsic dominance can (but doesn’t always) lead to lack of clear purpose, structure, productivity or accountability, whereas high extrinsic dominance almost always leads to feelings of loss of control, fear of loss & overly-defined boundaries (e.g., “It’s not my job to do that”.) The preferred blend for most employees in most roles is shown in the graphic above in bright green as “Intrinsically-Biased but Extrinsically-Influenced”, with the goal of maximising intrinsic motivation within that context.
  • Outcomes that are intrinsically-biased are more likely to attract discretionary effort, care, creativity and problem-solving. They may also support greater collaboration, cooperation and communication if those acts are seen to enhance immediate rewards, rather than diminish them. They are also more likely to lead directly to fulfilment, engagement and well-being.
  • Effective extrinsic rewards are intrinsically-appealing – for example positive feedback (an extrinsic reward) can support feelings of competence (an intrinsic enabler) and identity (and intrinsic motivator). Even pay and job security, arguably the most extrinsic of workplace motivators, are closely related to self-worth, identity, social position, safety and survival.

Because it is fairly simple for employers to control consequences, and there can quite easily be openness and perceived fairness attached to them, extrinsic rewards or losses will always be easier to manage in the workplace. However, enhancing the opportunities for employees to experience intrinsic motivation is more supportive of effort, engagement & well-being. Clearly, an ideal  answer lies in matching, albeit with some allowances, the intrinsic drives of an individual with extrinsically-imposed need and consequences as a part of recruitment, role design, task allocation and career development, as well as management and leadership practice.