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Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation—Clearing the Fog (not Fogg!)

By MikeW

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation—Clearing the Fog (not Fogg!)

by Lithium Guru ‎02-11-2014 06:01 AM - edited ‎09-02-2015 12:15 PM by Moderator Moderator

As promised, I’m back with more blogs and today we’ll talk about gamification.


conf2014 virtual community summit_300.pngBefore we get into the details—a quick announcement. I will be giving a 3 hour workshop—in addition to the closing keynote—next week at the Virtual Community Summit. The conference will be held at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. So if you are in London, please stop by and say hello.


Now, back to gamification.


Ever since I started writing on gamification, the topic of motivation came up countless times. It is a natural connection, because motivation is the primary driving force behind human actions. Consequently, many psychology research papers are devoted to this topic. Motivation is also one of the three necessary factors in the Fogg’s Behavior Model that underlies all human behavior.


Despite the fact that good gamification must drive the temporal convergence of motivation, ability, and trigger, most gamification applications focus solely on motivation. Some even proposed renaming “gamification” to “motivational design.” But many people are still very confused about what is motivation, and how it differs from rewards. What precisely is the difference between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation? And how is that different from intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards?


Motivation is a very old and deep subject. Hundreds and probably thousands of books have been written about it. Even within the academic communities, there are many psychological constructs and theories that attempt to understand human motivation. So this short post is by no means complete. However, I do hope it will guide you down the right path in your own exploration of this fascinating topic, and perhaps clear some of the fog around this topic.


The Proper Context for Motivation

motivation cat+mice px300.pngMotivation is anything that drives us to do something. When a psychologist talks about motivation, it is usually in the context of a specific behavior or action—motivation to do what? Unfortunately, this is different from our everyday usage of the word “motivation.” We often refer to motivation as a characteristic of a person.


For example, you may hear a manager complimenting a particular colleague as being very motivated. What he really meant was that his colleague is very motivated about work related behaviors (e.g. coming to the office on time, responding to client inquiries, addressing their problems, documenting his algorithms, or whatever the person’s work might be). I bet this particular colleague is probably NOT motivated to watch a movie in the middle of his work day, take out the garbage, do his laundry, or other behaviors not related to work.


Likewise when we compliment a certain student as being very motivated, we really mean he is motivated to learn or to carry out any behavior related to learning in school. This particular student is probably not very motivated to sleep all day, skip class, or do any non-school related activities.


People are rarely motivated to do everything. In fact, I doubt a truly “motivated person” (i.e. someone who is motivated to do everything) even exists. So we should learn from the psychologists and talk about someone’s motivation in reference to a behavior or activity, and not view it as a personal trait of the individual.


Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Because we often think of motivation as a personal trait, we make the mistake of thinking that intrinsic motivation as intrinsic to the person (i.e. it originates from within the person). This is incorrect and has confused many practitioners of gamification.


Intrinsic motivation is simply the desire to perform a behavior/activity for its own sake, like a hobby (e.g. reading, painting, singing, playing a game, even coding for some engineers). It means you would do that activity for no other reason besides the love and joy of doing it. Intrinsic motivation refers to any motivation that is intrinsic to the behavior or activity, not intrinsic to the person. However, most intrinsic motivations are very personal (e.g. solving math problem may be intrinsically motivating to me, but it may be depressing for others). However, there are four characteristics of intrinsic motivations that are quite universal:


  1. Autonomy: people have full control over when and to what level they want to carry out the activity
  2. Mastery (i.e. competence or progress): people can get better at the activity
  3. Relatedness: people can relate to others who are also doing the activity
  4. Purpose: people recognize the importance meaning of the activity


Extrinsic motivations are all other reasons that drive us to do something. That means we perform the behavior for reasons other than the love of doing it. Extrinsic motivation refers to any motivation that is extrinsic to the behavior or activity. There are many extrinsic motivations because we do things for many different reasons (e.g. get paid, received rewards, gain status, gain influence, receive praise, peer pressure, mitigate risk, avoid punishment, etc.). All are extrinsic motivations for doing something.


Grades Girl holding up test px350.pngMany extrinsic motivations are perfectly good and noble reasons, too. For example, getting good grades can be an extrinsic motivation for reading if you don’t already love to read, because you are doing it to get good grades, not because you just love to read. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades. 


Likewise, people spend much time sharing content on social media for many wonderful reasons (e.g. connect with like-minded individuals, curate content, etc.) as well as other more selfish reasons (e.g. self-express, gain attention and recognitions, etc.). These are all extrinsic motivations for sharing, because they didn’t share simply because they like to share. If there is something else that helps you achieve those reasons more effectively, you would probably do that instead of sharing on social media.



Motivation is anything that drives us to carry out a behavior or activity. Although many people like to think of motivation as a personal trait, motivation should be viewed in reference to a behavior or activity. So when we speak of motivation, intrinsic doesn’t mean inside the person and extrinsic doesn’t mean external to the person. Rather intrinsic (or extrinsic) motivation means whether the reason that drives someone to do something is intrinsic (or extrinsic) to the behavior or activity.


Now we understand the difference between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Next time, we can start the discussion on the difference between intrinsic vs. extrinsic reward. Although reward and motivation are very different, few gamification practitioners can articulate the subtle difference between intrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivations.


Stay tuned for the next blog, and we’ll continue to lift the fog on this topic.



Michael Wu, Ph.D.mwu_whiteKangolHat_blog.jpg is CRM2010MKTAWRD_influentials.pngLithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.

by Honored Contributor Honored Contributor
‎02-11-2014 07:50 AM
Community Management

Another great read, really insightful stuff. I already have a ticket for both days and really looking forward to saying hey Smiley Happy 

by Lithium Guru
‎02-11-2014 07:55 AM
Data Science

Hello Fellsteruk,


Thank you for the comment. And glad to hear that you find it insightful.


I look forward to seeing you at the VCS. Please be sure to stop by and introduce yourself and let me know you are Fellsteruk. Virtual + face-to-face will definite speed up the relationship building process.




In fact, I have written about this. If you are interested, please take a look at this post:

Virtual vs. in Real Life: The Value of Relationship Perspective


Alright, see you in London next week.


by Honored Contributor Honored Contributor
‎02-12-2014 02:43 AM
Community Management

Will do thanks Smiley Happy look forward to reading that..

by fer
‎02-21-2015 11:50 PM

Great Post! but...

Dealing with intrinsic motivation, if there is a purpose, for instance,  this could be considerer as an external factor, why is it then , to be considerer a charatetistic of intrinsic motivation ??



by Lithium Guru
‎02-24-2015 12:19 PM - edited ‎02-25-2015 09:40 AM
Data Science

Hello @fer,


First of all, thx u for commenting on my blog.


To address your question. Intrinsic motivation does NOT mean no external factors. It just means the reason that drives you to do something is intrinsic to (i.e. inherent part of) the behavior itself.


For instance, using singing as an example. People can definitely be motivated intrinsically to sing. This means that they sing because they just love singing. The reason that they sing is inherent (intrinsic) to the act of singing. But this does NOT mean that there is no external factors. The singer may also get praise from the audience, s/he can make other happy by singing, etc. But these are external factors to the act of singing. But they are not "the reason" that make him/her sing. Even though many external factors exist, they are not the primary driver for the behavior (i.e. singing), which is simply the act of singing, and as a result intrinsic to singing.


So even though many intrinsically motivated behaviors may have many external factors, they are not the reason that make a person carry out that behavior. Consequently, this also means that even in the absence of these external factors, they should still perform the behavior if they are intrinsically motivated.


Alright, I hope this address your question. It's a good question, so thank you for asking.

Hope to see you again next time.


‎02-24-2015 04:45 PM

Dr. Wu:


No mention of Ryan, no Deci?

Good post!!


J. Paul Leavell

by Lithium Guru
‎02-24-2015 07:48 PM
Data Science

Hello J. Paul (@PINOKEPOC),


Thx for the reminder.


I actually did mention them, but in a different post. Keep in mind that this is a blog post, not a textbook. It's impossible for me to say everything I know or have even a more in depth treatment of such a complex subject as human motivation.


But yes, self-determination theory (SDT) by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan is one of the most well tested psychological theory of human motivation. However, I believe that human motivation is such a complex subject that no theory or model can explain everything. So I always like to look at multiple psychological constructs and theories when examining a problem.


Like the famouse statistician George E Box once said, "all models are essentially wrong, just some are more useful than others." And Ryan and Deci's is definitely one of the most useful when trying to understand human motivation.


Thank for calling me out on this. Good call...

See you again next time.


by Occasional Commentator misterrosen
2 weeks ago

Greetings again Michael,


First, thanks again for clarifications about the blog posts from last year. It was deeply useful in clarifying very specific points of understanding for myself and others re the distinction between motivation and rewards.


I was re-reading some content to respond to a colleague and came across this blog, and the following statement.


"Many extrinsic motivations are perfectly good and noble reasons, too. For example, getting good grades can be an extrinsic motivation for reading if you don’t already love to read, because you are doing it to get good grades, not because you just love to read. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades."


It caused me some dissonance.


You see, Alfie Kohn, (with whom I assume you are familiar), and W. Edwards Deming, (guessing you may not be familiar with him), both decry the use of grading systems, or indeed traditional evaluation systems in general terms. As a teacher and Certified Quality Engineer I have always had to walk a line between a modern view (Deming) and a traditional view (classical) of grading and evaluating in school.


So, in particular, "There is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades." seems to be presumptive. Kohn and Deming both identify numerous issues with pursuit of evaluation scores. From Kohn's side, the evaluation itself takes away from the student and the teacher's ability to focus on what 'ought' be learned. The grades, in his view, literally diminish, or even destroy, intrinsic motivation. From a slightly less dramatic position, Deming declares that any such evaluation is based on the presumption of accurate predictive outcomes based on the evaluation score. As an eminent statistician, he felt that such predictive assumptions were ludicrous, and based on pure fantasy of judgment, (reinforced, coincidentally, by Khaneman, Thinking Fast and Slow). In his own practice of teaching, at New York University, he never gave a grade other than A. A description of his reasoning can be found online.


I'm wondering if you've been presented with these ideas before, and what counter reasoning you would present to make a case in contradiction to theirs.


A perfect example of a common concept that occurs in relation to the two approaches is the issue of sub-optimization. If we evaluate individuals, they tend to work for the good of the individual. This is seen every day in schools and in work. If a course is graded on a curve, ( the worst example), the best student will work by himself, helping no one, in order to hold others back and thus maximize his own success. The same idea obviously occurs in the workplace.


Peter Scholte's quoted a Japanese CEO as saying, "We don't give our managers rewards based on objectives because we don't want to reward anyone for being lucky." Scholtes would identify other factors those pose an issue in evaluation as well.


What cost do we incur when a person achieves a badge of reasons other than individual effort, or, is prevented from receiving a badge for same? These costs are not measurable, but Deming would suggest that they still occur, and can be managed.


So in saying, "there is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades", have you not made an assumption that 'nothing is wrong'?


Thanks so much for your previous discourse. I hope this comment is as well received. I look forward to your thoughts on this.