Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsically motivated people engage in an activity because they experience it as interesting and enjoyable. Intrinsic motivation is the prototype of autonomous motivation, for people engage in the activity with a sense of self-initiation, freedom, and volition. In contrast, extrinsically motivated people engage in the activity because it is instrumental to a separate, though desirable consequence—for example, attaining a reward or avoiding a punishment. With extrinsic motivation, satisfaction comes not from the activity itself but, rather, from the extrinsic consequences to which the activity leads. Research has shown that optimal challenge, positive performance feedback, and choice about activities stimulate interest and enhance intrinsic motivation. In contrast, contingent rewards, surveillance, and threats highlight contingencies that enhance extrinsic motivation.

Although some motivation theories argue that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have additive effects on performance and satisfaction, research has shown that the two types of motivation tend to interact. Specifically, when extrinsic rewards are offered to a person for doing an intrinsically motivated activity, the rewards can either enhance or diminish the person’s intrinsic motivation. In particular, tangible rewards have been found to decrease intrinsic motivation. This often-replicated finding led many writers to assert that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are invariantly antagonistic. Self-determination theory (SDT) makes clear, however, that the two types of motivation tend be compatible when the extrinsic motivation has been well internalized.

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The Self-Determination Continuum

Self-determination theory proposes that extrinsic motivation varies in the degree to which it is autonomous depending on the degree to which it has been internalized. Activities that are not interesting (i.e., that are not intrinsically motivating) require extrinsic motivation, so their initial enactment depends on the perception of a contingency between the behavior and a consequence such as the manager’s approval or a tangible reward. When so motivated, the activity is said to be externally regulated—that is, initiated and maintained by contingencies external to the person (e.g., I work hard because I will be rewarded for doing so). This is the classic type of extrinsic motivation that was found to undermine intrinsic motivation, and it is the prototype of being controlled—that is, of being pressured to behave, think, or feel a particular way.

External regulations can, however, be internalized, in which case the external contingencies are no longer required and people continue to work even when the boss is not watching. According to SDT, there are three different degrees to which a regulation and its underlying value can be internalized. The least complete form of internalization is referred to as introjection, in which people take in a contingency without accepting it as their own. Thus, it is as if the contingency, which is now internal, still controls them. For example, when people behave so others will acknowledge them, they are externally regulated, but when they introject the regulation they behave to feel like a worthy person—that is, to experience the self-esteem that has become contingent on the behavior. Another example of introjected regulation is behaving to protect an ego involvement. Introjected regulation, although internal to the person, is still a controlled form of extrinsic motivation because people feel pressured to behave by the introjected contingency.

When people identify with a regulation, they engage in an activity because it is congruent with personal values, goals, and identities. Through identification, they accept the regulation as their own and feel greater freedom and volition. A day care worker who strongly values children’s comfort, growth, and well-being and who understands the importance of doing the unpleasant tasks that foster the children’s well-being would feel relatively autonomous when changing dirty diapers or cleaning up vomit.

Finally, if a regulation were integrated, people would have a full sense that the behavior is an integral part of who they are. This type of regulation would result when an identification has been integrated with other aspects of the person’s self—that is, with other identifications, interests, and values. The day care worker would not only have identified with the importance of the unpleasant aspects of caring for the children, but would have accepted the job as an integral part of his or her life and would even be more likely to do unpleasant tasks that helped other children. Integrated regulation represents the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. However, it is not the same as intrinsic motivation, because intrinsic motivation is characterized by being interested in the activity itself, whereas autonomous extrinsic motivation is characterized by the activity being instrumentally important for personal goals or values.

The different types of regulation can be aligned along an autonomy continuum ranging from amotivation, which means that the person is not motivated and thus is wholly lacking in autonomy, through the four types of extrinsic motivation (i.e., external, introjected, identified, and integrated, which, respectively, represent increasing autonomy), to intrinsic motivation, which is the most autonomous type of motivation. This autonomy continuum does not, however, mean that SDT is a stage theory, nor does it imply that people must invariantly move through the regulations sequentially for a particular behavior. Rather, the degree of internalization depends on aspects of the person, the task, and the context within which the person engages the task.

Conceptualizing extrinsic motivation in terms of internalization effectively changed the central distinction in motivation from intrinsic versus extrinsic to autonomous versus controlled. Intrinsic motivation and identification/integration constitute autonomous motivation, whereas external and introjected regulation constitute controlled motivation.

In organizational settings, workers’ motivation can be assessed with an instrument that asks, for example, why they try to do well at their job. Various reasons are then presented that reflect the types of motivation. Participants rate the degree to which each is true for them. Examples of reasons offered include the following: for external reasons, so as not to upset the boss; for introjected reasons, to feel like a good person; for identified and integrated reasons, to fulfill personal goals and values; for intrinsic reasons, to experience interest and enjoyment; and for a motivation, not trying or knowing why. Research has supported the control-to-autonomy continuum by showing that each type of motivation correlates most positively with the other types located closest to it on the continuum and less positively or more negatively with types located farther from it.

Autonomy and the Social Context

Considerable work has examined aspects of the social context that enhance versus undermine autonomous motivation. Some studies have examined effects of the social context on intrinsic motivation, whereas others have examined contextual effects on internalization. Dozens of studies led to the SDT proposition that people have three basic psychological needs—for competence, autonomy, and relatedness—and that contextual factors that provide satisfaction of these needs enhance autonomy, and those that thwart satisfaction of the needs diminish autonomy and promote either controlled regulation or amotivation.

Significantly, various studies have also shown that satisfaction of the basic needs promotes more effective job performance, better learning, greater persistence at difficult tasks, enhanced engagement with a job, more positive work attitudes, decreased stress, and better adjustment and well-being. These findings have emphasized the importance of examining the factors that promote autonomy through support for the basic psychological needs.

Laboratory experiments have shown that external factors such as tangible rewards, deadlines, surveillance, and evaluations tend to thwart the need for autonomy and undermine intrinsic motivation, and negative feedback tends to undermine intrinsic motivation by thwarting the need for competence. In contrast, external factors such as acknowledging feelings and providing choice tend to enhance feelings of autonomy and increase intrinsic motivation, and positive feedback tends to increase intrinsic motivation by enhancing feelings of competence.

Of course, intrinsic motivation in the workplace is very important, but intrinsic motivation requires that work activities be interesting—for example, that there is variety or challenge to the work and that there are opportunities to make choices or decisions relevant to the job. When work activities cannot be made more interesting, internalization of extrinsic motivation becomes the critical issue. Significantly, internalization also occurs when the work environment allows satisfaction of the basic needs.

Of significance to industrial/organizational psychologists, research has shown that work climates, managerial approaches, and leadership styles that support employees’ competence, autonomy, and relatedness—for example, by encouraging self-initiation, problem solving, group interaction, and collective responsibility—promote employees’ identification and integration of extrinsic motivation. Additional work-climate factors that have been found to facilitate internalization are providing a meaningful rationale for doing an uninteresting behavior and acknowledging feelings about the various aspects of the jobs. Facilitating internalization is important in organizations because autonomous extrinsic motivation is more predictive than intrinsic motivation of behaviors that are not interesting and require discipline or determination.

When a job involves only simple and repetitive tasks, there is typically not a performance advantage to autonomous relative to controlled motivation, but even in those situations, autonomous motivation is associated with greater job satisfaction and well-being. This implies that, overall, autonomous motivation is preferable in organizations because even with boring jobs, there is an advantage to autonomous motivation for job satisfaction and well-being, which are likely to yield better attendance and lower turnover.

Rewards and Motivation

As mentioned earlier, studies have shown that tangible rewards tend to have a detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation, and a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies confirmed this effect. Verbal rewards (i.e., positive feedback), on the other hand, were found to enhance intrinsic motivation. The meta-analysis also found limiting conditions to the negative effects of tangible rewards. When rewards were given independent of specific task engagement (as might be the case with a salary), or when the rewards were not anticipated (as might be the case with unexpected bonuses), tangible rewards did not significantly undermine intrinsic motivation. The conditions under which rewards were most likely to negatively affect intrinsic motivation were when people expected them while working on a task and when the rewards were contingent on doing the task or performing well at it. When rewards were contingent on performing well, they tended not to be as detrimental as when they were contingent just on doing the task or completing it. This is because the positive feedback inherent in rewards that are given for performing well enhances people’s feelings of competence, and that tends to offset some of the negative effect of rewards that is caused by the thwarting of autonomy.

Some studies have gone further to show that when rewards are administered informationally—that is, when they signify competence, convey appreciation, and acknowledge the person’s initiative in doing a good job—they can have a positive rather than negative effect on intrinsic motivation. However, creating these rewarding conditions tends to be quite difficult. Furthermore, if positive feedback (without being accompanied by tangible rewards) is administered informationally, it leads to greater intrinsic motivation than informationally administered performance-contingent rewards that implicitly convey the same positive feedback. Thus, one can conclude that, although the use of tangible rewards may at times have a positive effect on intrinsic motivation when administered as a nonpressured expression of appreciation for a good job, informationally administered positive feedback appears to be an even more powerful means of maintaining and enhancing people’s intrinsic motivation on the job.

Because intrinsic motivation is associated with better performance than controlled extrinsic motivation, the undermining of intrinsic motivation by extrinsic rewards is negative for organizational effectiveness. Research has shown that contingent tangible rewards and other extrinsic factors, such as competition and evaluations, can be detrimental to outcomes such as creativity, cognitive flexibility, attaining difficult goals, problem solving, and well-being. For example, a negative relation between the perception of extrinsic rewards and the amount of intrinsic motivation was found in one study, and another study found that the introduction of a merit-pay program led to workers’ feelings of decreased autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Still another found that pay-for-performance plans led to lower well-being in blue-collar workers who had monotonous jobs. Moreover, one meta-analysis showed that programs using financial incentives had smaller positive effects than did programs using training and goal setting.

Taken together, the various results have three implications for organizations. First, unexpected bonuses may not be undermining, but unexpected bonuses must be used very sparingly or they will soon be expected. Second, salaries, which do not emphasize links between specific behaviors and rewards, are less likely to undermine intrinsic motivation than are pay-for-performance systems. Indeed, it is best to keep rewards relatively nonsalient in organizations rather than to think of them as a central means of motivating employees. People need to feel that they are being equitably rewarded, but using rewards as a central motivational strategy is likely to backfire. Third, if contingent rewards are to be used, it is important that they be used to acknowledge good performance and that they be given in an informational way. This will minimize people’s feelings of being controlled and will reduce the negative effects of the rewards on performance and well-being. In short, rewards are an important aspect of organizational life, but the research indicates that reward structures in organizations are likely to be most effective when they are not used as a means of motivating specific behavior.


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  3. Gagne, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory as a new framework for understanding organizational behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362.
  4. Jenkins, C. D., Jr., Mitra, A., Gupta, N., & Shaw, J. D. (1998). Are financial incentives related to performance? A meta-analytic review of empirical research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 777-787.
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