Science! Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation: Two Things You Must Understand If You Want To Succeed  in Habit Formation

Science! Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation: Two Things You Must Understand If You Want To Succeed in Habit Formation

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Learn / science

Alright guys, I have a really important, foundational, crucial to your habit success science hack for you today.


I’m going to explain two of the most important things you need to understand about motivation. Understanding these two terms is likely going to completely change the way you approach your habits. These two terms are going to make all the difference in whether you are keeping at your goal for the long haul, or ditching it at the first distraction that comes your way.


Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.


To review these terms, we gotta do a little deep dive in psychology literature. But don’t worry, I’m going to keep it simple so I don’t bore you to tears. This stuff is so important, I’ll probably be referring back to this blog post for years. So stay with me.


These terms were coined as part of something called Self-Determination Theory, which dates back to the early 1970s.  Self-Determination Theory, or SDT, is a theory that two psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, created to explain human motivation. We don’t have time to get into the whole theory here, but the quick and dirty is that it deals with what motivates people to do stuff. It centers widely around two forms of motivation that have now been studied for decades, and those are the terms we are going to get into.


Intrinsic motivation is being motivated by something INHERENTLY.

Because you like it. Plain and simple. You engage in it because you enjoy engaging in it. There’s no focus on outcome. The joy is in the process. “It’s the journey, not the destination.” You get the idea.


Extrinsic motivation is being motivated by the outcome that lies on the other side of the action.

This can be directly related, or indirectly. So, for example. A pro basketball player keeps a daily habit of practicing his  layups for the thrill of the victory – that’s a direct outcome. Or he sticks to his habit because he wants the hefty paycheck that comes with being a pro – that’s an indirect outcome. Both are focused on the reward on the other side, not the thrill of doing layups.


Still with me?


So which one is better? Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?


What do you think?



…. It’s complicated.


OK, OK, I know I said I’d make this simple.


So, when researchers took to studying this, they found something, over and over again, that really inspired a big nerdy debate about motivation. Basically, if you take someone doing something they love doing for the pure love of it, and you pay them for doing it, they become LESS in love with the activity as a result.

It’s called the undermining effect.

So, essentially, if you like doing something (intrinsic motivation), and you are given external rewards for doing that (extrinsic motivation), you lose your intrinsic motivation as a result. So, you can see how this applies to life. You love writing, so you become a copywriter. You start getting paid for it, and eventually you start to dread it, because you are more motivated by the paycheck.


So let’s just not reward people ever! Amiright?


Well, the thing  is, not many things in life are fully and inherently motivating to people. If this was the case, we wouldn’t need to build habits. How often do you hear someone say (or say yourself) – I love x y z, but I can’t motivate myself to do it! So, clearly, there is something about x y z that is not enjoyable… otherwise, uh, they would just do it.

The other issue with the undermining effect is that it simplifies things a bit too much. People do stuff for all kinds of reasons. To quote the article I’m reviewing today, “In field settings, there are many incentives and far less control as to how incentives are linked to performance. For example, a student may play college basketball for a scholarship and because s/he enjoys the sport” (pg 4).


That quote comes from this big meta analysis that I’ll be reviewing today. A meta-analysis is basically a study that STUDIES OTHER STUDIES. So they take all the stats from other studies and combine these together. This study looked at data from 154 studies and 212,468 total participants, to once and for all set the record straight:

Seriously though, extrinsic or intrinsic motivation?? What matters more, and when?


Here’s why this matters. Say you want to form a new habit to go for a run every Saturday morning. You tried this and after a few weeks became inconsistent, so you know it’s time to hack your mind a bit so that you can be sure that you’ll keep this new habit for  the long run. The habit cues are all in place. You put the shoes by the door, set the alarm, set up a Friday evening routine so you get enough sleep. Now you need to figure out how to reward/reinforce the behavior after you do it. You know you like to run, that’s why you are trying to do it more consistently!

So here’s the dilemma: do you plan to get your fave chocolate protein smoothie after every Saturday run, knowing that by doing that, you might accidentally cause yourself to like running LESS via the undermining effect? The smoothie is extrinsic motivation after all, and you do have intrinsic motivation here – you like running after all! So what do you do?


Cerasoli, Nicklin, and Ford had a few ideas. They hypothesized that being intrinsically motivated was important to performance in general, but would be more important to QUALITY and less important to QUANTITY. They also hypothesized that intrinsic motivation’s relationship with your performance will be strengthened when INDIRECT incentives are offered (like being subscribed to a running magazine so long as you are running every month, but not directly tied to how often you do that Saturday run), and weakened when directly related (ahem, the weekly smoothie reward).  You can also think of this one as base salary (indirect) vs. commission (direct). Lastly, they guessed that extrinsic motivation (external rewards) would be a better predictor of quantity, but intrinsic motivation (inner enjoyment) would better predict the quality of performance.


Aaaand, they were correct, on all counts.


So let’s look at what this means for our runner.


If the runner uses the smoothie as the reward, the runs are more likely to happen Saturday. They love that freaking chocolate smoothie, and it’s worth waking up early for the run. But over time, what might happen to quality? That smoothie can’t predict quality very well, and since it’s a direct incentive, it will weaken the relationship between your performance and your intrinsic motivation. So intrinsic motivation is less and less likely to save the day and help you run strong.

More problematically, what happens if they sell out of your smoothie, or you move and can’t find that smoothie anymore, or you are traveling or on vacation? Again, to quote our researcher friends here, Cerasoli, Nicklin, and Ford, “the concern is that once the incentives are gone, motivation will disappear with it because the remaining intrinsic drive dried up earlier as a result of the extrinsic incentives being used” (pg 20).


Hear me out. Extrinsic rewards aren’t bad. Don’t avoid them at all costs. But the implication is that we should be mindful and intention if we are going to use a reward system like this, and think carefully about the why and the how. Also, we should think long and hard about whether or not we might benefit in the long run from focusing more on developing intrinsic motivation, and whether or not we care more about quality or quantity with a habit we are trying to put into place in our lives.


So, let’s recap:

1) Intrinsic motivation is the natural pleasure you find in doing something. Extrinsic motivation is the rewards you get as a result of doing something, either directly or indirectly.

2) Direct incentives for engaging in a behavior will weaken intrinsic motivation’s power when it comes to your habit success.

3) Extrinsic motivation will predict the quantity of your engagement, but intrinsic motivation will predict the quality of it.


So, I can already hear you saying: But Asha, I know how to buy a smoothie after a run. How do I increase my natural desire to run??


Mindset, mindset, mindset, my friends. It’s all about mindset.


If you have tried and failed to launch a new habit in your life using a reward system, here’s a couple journal prompts for you:

“Why, deep deep down, do I want this new habit in my life?”

“What can I do to remind myself of my big picture reason for doing this? “

“If I do reward myself, how can I tie my rewards directly to my big picture reason for doing this?”


Trade the smoothie in by ending your run at the top of a gorgeous trail where you can watch the sunrise. Or for a hot shower where you relish in how GOOD your body feels. Trade in the smoothie for the killer playlists you make for the run. Trade it in for the pure exhilaration of putting one foot in front of the other.


How are YOU going to start developing an intrinsically motivated mindset? Let me know!

As always, here is your primary references for this article:

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Incentives Jointly Predict Performance: A 40-Year Meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140 (4), 1-29.

This Post Has 3 Comments

Comments are closed.