Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Which is Better for Lasting Success?

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation both are useful and have their place. But which one is better if we are after lasting change and success?

Have you ever started working towards a goal, only to give up halfway through? We see this a lot during this time of year. People set New Year’s resolutions, get all excited about making a change in their lives, then come February, their goals fade away.

Ever wonder why this is? It may have something to do with where we derive our motivation. Yes, motivation can come in many forms, but when we get down to the basics there are only two different categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is defined as behavior that is driven by an outcome, result, or reward which is external and separated from the action itself.

Whenever we are driven by an external motivator, it is not the actual performance or action we are focused on. Rather, these serve as a means to an end. The reason we play a sport, go to school, or seek out a certain profession is based on a perceived outcome.

Enjoyment or fulfillment from an action may or may not be gained. Either way, that is not the objective an individual who uses external motivation is seeking. Instead, they have their eyes locked on some end result that can be gained through such an experience.

For extrinsic motivation to take place, there must first be an external reward. Let’s use a grade as an example. There is a test coming up and a student knows they want to receive an A. The external reward has been presented: getting an A.

Now, the student begins to study. They are not studying for the pleasure and intrigue of learning the material in and of itself. Rather, they are putting in the effort to study with the expectation of receiving an A in return.

We can use sports as another example. Many times you hear athletes say they are chasing a championship. Their aim is to work all year long in hopes of attaining the end result, which happens to be winning the championship at their level.

If that is what truly drives them, then this would be a form of extrinsic motivation. Such an individual is not involved in the sport for the fulfillment and enjoyment of training and playing games, but rather for the possibility of receiving an external award.

Extrinsic motivation is not always based on rewards either. Nor are they always physical in nature. We can also be driven to perform activities in order to avoid punishment. Extrinsic motivators can come from anywhere, making them quite abundant in our lives.

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation:

  • Completing work to get paid.
  • Doing the dishes to receive an allowance.
  • Playing a sport to make your parents happy.
  • Going to college to land a good job.
  • Taking out the trash to avoid conflict with your partner, parent, or roomate.
  • Performing charity work for praise and recognition.
  • Doing extra work to receive a promotion.
  • Losing weight so that other people will acknowledge how good you look.
  • Hustling in practice so your coach takes notice of you.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic Motivation is defined as behavior that is driven by an internal feeling of joy or satisfaction.

When we are driven by an intrinsic motivator, there is no connection with an outcome. Yes, we may receive recognition, money, or other rewards for the behavior, but that is not the objective.

Intrinsically motivated behavior is separate from any external result. We are focused primarily and driven mainly by the action or behavior itself. There is a level of personal fulfillment felt from doing rather than from receiving.

In this state, there is little to no concern as to what the action may yield. As children, this type of motivation is easy to get behind. We always were searching for more enjoyable ways to play and have fun with our time.

As adults, it can be easy to lose track of what intrinsically motivates us. As the external achievements seem to become more important, we focus less on what actions and behaviors bring us personal joy and fulfillment.

For us to be motivated intrinsically, we must be driven by the action alone. A good example would be exercise. An individual who is intrinsically motivated enjoys exercising because the act itself makes them feel good.

While exercising will have a positive impact on the way they look, that is not what drives them to get off the couch every day.

Another example would be an athlete who plays a sport out of passion. This individual loves training, practicing, and playing games. They do care about winning and would like to have a shot at the championship, but that is not their main driver. The sport is played because the act brings the athlete so much joy and satisfaction.

We can look at the list from above and see what each would look like if the individual were internally motivated.

“As adults, it can be easy to lose track of what intrinsically motivates us. As the external achievements seem to become more important, we focus less on what actions and behaviors bring us personal joy and fulfillment.”

Examples of Intrinsic Motivation:

  • Completing work out of the love for what you do.
  • Doing the dishes because the activity helps you relax.
  • Playing a sport because it brings you joy.
  • Going to college since you love to learn.
  • Taking out the trash because you feel the satisfaction of having a clean house.
  • Performing charity work for personal satisfaction.
  • Doing extra work because you love what you do.
  • Losing weight through exercise because the activity makes you feel fulfilled and it is enjoyable.
  • Hustling in practice out of a passion for the game.

How Extrinsic Motivation Drives Behavior

One of the best ways I can think to illustrate how external rewards and outcomes drive behavior is my own experience.

I always thought of myself as an intrinsically motivated individual. Whenever it came to exercising, training for baseball, eating well, or learning new subjects the drive developed from within. There was no need for anyone to force me to do any of this.

However, the more I learn about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, there is a recurring theme that becomes evident. A lot of what I did was driven by internal motivation but was done with the aim of achieving something external.

When I was in college, there was a strong drive to succeed on the baseball field. As I dive deep into what the reasoning was for my desire to hit for a certain average, have a significant amount of home runs, or attain a specific fielding percentage, I realize it was all for external reasons.

In fact, it could all be summed up with one simple explanation: I was driven by the desire for other people’s approval and admiration. Even as I left college and thought about continuing to play, it wasn’t for my own enjoyment, but rather as a way to receive praise for reaching a certain level in the sport.

I find that so interesting to think about. Even though I believed that I was motivated internally, the true driving force was something outside of myself. There is definitely nothing wrong with external motivation, I mean we all want to win championships and be part of a winning program.

What I would like to ask you, based on the example I gave, is how long would that type of extrinsic motivation last? Would it be a sustainable way to motivate myself in the long term?

In terms of fitness, I can admit that the journey began with extrinsic motivation. I started weightlifting my freshman year of high school to help myself perform better on the baseball field. However, as I have gotten older, this extrinsic motivation has taken on a negative form at times.

Rather than enjoy the act of exercising, I have found myself doing it solely for the appraisal and recognition from others. This never feels good, and always results in me being overly critical of myself. When I exercise for the pure enjoyment of the action, though, I feel much more satisfied.

So there are different ways extrinsic motivation can drive our behavior. We must be careful to make sure we understand if we are being driven by such external forces. It can be dangerous to our psyche to believe we are operating out of intrinsic motivation, only to truly be behaving for external rewards and approval.

Is Extrinsic Motivation Effective?

Interestingly, extrinsic motivation is quite abundant in our lives, especially as we are growing up. As I have stated, in school most of us are driven to study and complete work out of the hope of receiving a good grade. Or possibly to avoid the wrath of our parents if we were to fail.

As we grow older, there is a push for us to work towards a degree to land a good job in order to receive a livable wage. Unless there is an underlying joy driving these actions, our lives will be run by extrinsic motivation.

The question that arises is whether or not extrinsic motivation is effective?

I have known people who seem to be solely motivated by external materials. Whether that be money or acknowledgment. So, some people do respond to this form of motivation, but it can be difficult to accept it as an effective form of motivation for lasting change.

As I described with my experience, external motivation has the tendency to lead us down a path towards approval-seeking behavior. We may believe we are driven to perform out of devotion, but the truth is we are seeking recognition and appraisal from those around us.

In this way, yes, extrinsic motivation is effective, at least in the short term. I am glad I was pushed to begin weightlifting when I did since it helped me develop and gain strength. However, as I have gotten older, this type of motivation does not last.

In order to continue to exercise and enjoy the process, I have had to learn that there must be love and satisfaction in the actual action itself.

The same holds true with baseball. As I look back on my college experience and think about my career ahead of me, I wonder how effective extrinsic motivation was/would be.

I believe that in college it would have served me well to realize the external drive that was pushing me to succeed because there were tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety that resulted from such focus.

Progressing in my career, I do not believe extrinsic motivation will be effective. The drive to continue to play must come from within, out of pure joy for the game.

“In this way, yes, extrinsic motivation is effective, at least in the short term. I am glad I was pushed to begin weightlifting when I did since it helped me develop and gain strength. However, as I have gotten older, this type of motivation does not last.”

Overjustification Effect

Another problem that arises with extrinsic motivation is the overjustification effect. This occurs when the occurrence of an external reward diminishes an individual’s motivation to perform an action. What happens is, the more an individual is rewarded, the more they believe the reason for the activity is tied to that outcome.

As a result, the more rewards they receive, the less motivation there is to continue performing a task. Why would we do something again if we have already reaped the external rewards of it?

However, there has been research pointing to this occurrence only happening in specific situations. What has been determined, though, is extrinsic motivation can be effective in the short term. But if we are seeking motivation for the long term, to implement lasting change, it may not be the best option.

How Intrinsic Motivation Creates Lasting Change & Fulfillment

When we look at intrinsic motivation, the behavior is driven by an underlying joy for the activity being performed. To me, this is the purest form of action. If we can find those situations that bring us the most fulfillment, then it will be extremely easy to continue them.

That is why I think if we are after lasting change, intrinsic motivation must be the driving force.

However, it is not quite as simple as saying to do what you love. An easy example is looking at someone who is extrinsically motivated in terms of work.

It is a must for them to find a job that pays them in return for their money. This is fulfilling a basic need for food and shelter. Without that fulfilled, there will be no room for discovering intrinsic motivation.

Also, if a person is wanting to lose weight, the only way to ensure lasting change is to find an intrinsic drive to exercise. However, this individual may actually detest working out. So in this case, how can intrinsic motivation be used? Is it lost on some people, and only extrinsic motivation can be useful?

Well, I do not believe so. We can and should use intrinsic motivation whenever we want to better our lives. To do so, there are certain areas we must focus on in order to ensure the drive is truly coming from within.

Ensure Basic Needs are Met

One of the main obstacles to having our actions be driven by pure love and enjoyment is the need for money. Many people will say they cannot focus on doing what they love because they must keep the job they have in order to pay the bills.

To this, I say that is true. We must all ensure our basic needs are met before any focus can be made on pursuing work and activities that we enjoy. The key is, do not forget to make progress towards liberation.

For instance, if you are in a job driven by extrinsic motivators, you can work in the evenings or on the weekends to pursue a job that truly fulfills you.

If you are lucky enough to still be living with your parents, then you will have a much easier time focusing on pursuits in which you enjoy.

Rethink Your Perspective

When I was in college, my problem was not that I did not enjoy baseball, it was that my motivation was coming from external sources.

I had my focus in the wrong place. My perspective was that I had to train and play better in order to receive recognition and praise from my teammates, coaches, friends, and parents. I thought that then I would feel satisfied and happy.

However, the truth is I needed to shift my perspective inward. If I were to take away all of the external rewards, can I find joy in just the act of playing baseball? The answer is yes, and honestly, I believe my performances would have actually been better.

I challenge you to examine the areas in your life you believe are running off extrinsic motivation. Would a perspective change allow you to focus on the act itself, in which you may find joy and satisfaction in simply performing?

By making this simple shift in our focus, we can change the way we see the world. Acts that previously were done purely for external rewards may be able to be taken part in simply out of joy. This will allow for lasting change and satisfaction, as we are not as susceptible to overjustification and burnout.

“I challenge you to examine the areas in your life you believe are running off extrinsic motivation. Would a perspective change allow you to focus on the act itself, in which you may find joy and satisfaction in simply performing?”

Be Creative

Thinking about how to incorporate intrinsic motivation when you truly cannot find a reason to feel joy for an activity can be frustrating. A prime example is someone who knows they want to exercise but cannot find the motivation within to keep going.

They have utilized extrinsic motivation to get started, knowing they want to look better in the eyes of other people. However, as usually happens, their motivation fades as there is not internal passion driving their behavior.

So how does someone like this develop the needed intrinsic drive to generate lasting change in their lives? Well, I would say to them, “be creative.”

What I mean by this is, there is not one path to the top of the mountain. If you want to exercise, try looking for more unique activities that you actually enjoy doing. You don’t have to run or lift weights in order to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Maybe you have always wanted to swim, or you really enjoy bike riding. Forget about weight lifting and begin to do those. The results of losing weight and getting into shape will take care of themselves. You just have to supply the intrinsic motivation to perform the specific action.

Here is where you see healthy habits begin to form. Imagine how amazing your life would be if you could slowly begin to incorporate joy into the actions you do on a daily basis.

Final Thoughts

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation both have their place in this world.

Some people respond better to material motives, while others seem to be led by the need for joy, happiness, and personal fulfillment.

I have found extrinsic motivation to be great on a small scale, with short term focus. This can be fantastic to get our foot in the door for an activity we otherwise would not have done. But if we are after lasting, significant change and fulfillment then our main driver in life must be intrinsic motivation.

What type of motivation runs your life? Have you found value in extrinsic motivation, or do you prefer to operate intrinsically? I would love to hear your experience with extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation so please leave a comment below.

I hope that this article was helpful and shed some light on the importance of discovering what your main motivator is in life.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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