Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsically motivated people engage in an activity simply because they like it. They are, in my opinion, “life-long learners” or understand joy in doing. They learn or do a task because the reward *is* the task, or the process of the task itself. Extrinsic rewards diminish the joy. According to Schunk (2008), intrinsic motivation can be undermined by an extrinsic reward because it thwarts the enjoyment of pursuing the intrinsically interesting activity (p. 502).

A good example might be when a volunteer is handed a paycheck. For an illustration, consider a story about a person who wants to be kind and proceeds to cut the front lawn of a neighbor who cannot. The person who cannot “insists” on paying the person for the service. For the person who has cut the grass, taking the money somehow "insults" the original intent (the joy of being kind and thoughtful), and this will most likely decrease that person's desire to repeat the action. It makes it awkward between the neighbors.

From college instructors’ perspectives, Lei (2010) examined both the benefits and drawbacks of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. In his paper, he created a comprehensive list of the pros and cons of each. When comparing the two types, it is obvious that intrinsic motivation would be a preferred type of motivation for a student to have in a college environment because it relates positively to learning and achievement.

Students who are intrinsically motivated do not depend on tangible rewards; they enjoy learning and exhibit high levels of competence and self-efficacy. Some of the more salient characteristics of intrinsically motivated students show that they are seldom anxious or depressed, and that they are not negatively stressed or frustrated in their studies. Usually they are cognitively engaged in their learning tasks, desire to truly understand the subject, and genuinely experience pleasure in their learning.

The drawbacks of intrinsic motivation seem a bit convoluted, when applied to college learning situations. Course deadlines and social demands would circumvent many of them, such as not having enough time to enjoy other favorite activities, or working with no completion deadline. People who are intrinsically motivated sometimes lose track of times and space when working on a task and can completely ignore authorities, but these drawback seem inconsequential when weighed against the benefits.

Extrinsically motivated students are inversely related to intrinsically motivated students. In other words the cons overwhelm the pros. However, extrinsic motivation is not all “bad”. While they focuses on tangible rewards, a few of the major benefits of extrinsic motivation include the social reasons to learn and high performance goals that can be set and achieved, or even a tangible reward such as an honor or an award. I know I won't mind when I receive my Tony Award.

However, the drawbacks of extrinsic rewards in motivation far outweigh the benefits because extrinsically motivated students will exert only minimal effort to complete a task, may stop an activity without the reinforcement and may see learning for the grade as more important than learning for the knowledge. As a result, they often have low self-esteem, low self-actualization, and show signs of high anxiety and depression as well as high stress and frustration with their learning.

When I examine my own use of motivation and motivational tools, I seem to take from both sides. For example, often I motivate myself as a composer by using composition or playwriting competitions (Opportunities, 2011) as incentives—not because my goal is to win the competition (although I do enjoy winning), but because it will give me a composition project I will enjoy completing.

What this means is that the competition (the extrinsic motivation) combines with my desire to compose a work (intrinsic motivation) and gives me a deadline to complete the composition or play . Once I am in the process of composing the music, I get into the “flow” of the creativity, lose track of time, and enjoy myself as I create a musical work. When I win a composition or playwriting competition, I recognize the value of this too, because I know that honors and awards in my profession serve to develop my reputation as a composer and a playwright. This is motivating and often opens new opportunities for me within my profession. What this all means to me is that there can be a healthy balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and to have that balance optimizes the possibility for joyful learning or work experiences.


Lei, S. A. (2010). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: Evaluating benefits and drawbacks from college instructors' perspectives. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 37(2), 153-160. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Schunk, D. H. (2008). Learning theories: An educational perspective (5th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN: 9780132435659.

Opportunities. (2011). American Composers Forum. Retrieved from http://www.composersforum.org/opportunities.cfm

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