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Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards (and Their Differences from Motivations)

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Before I delve into today’s topic, let me share an exciting announcement.


Lithium Badges.pngLast week Lithium launched the first feature of our Premium Gamification products. The Badging feature is just the first of many more that we plan to add to our already robust gamification engine. I’m excited to see more of my gamification theory and work being productized in the near future! Don’t’ forget to let me know your comments on the new badging features.

Looking for practical examples? Watch this session with Domo, Videotron, and SAS from our Engage Conference in September 2019.

OK back to lifting the fog! Last time I discussed motivation and the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Now we can go one step further to talk about rewards and the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Although motivation and rewards are both very critical to the design and implementation of gamification strategies, few gamification practitioners can articulate the subtle differences between intrinsic motivations vs. intrinsic rewards. Some even treat these distinctive concepts synonymously, which is ridiculously wrong.


Since this post builds on the concepts introduced in my last post, if you haven’t read it yet, please take a few minutes to do so. It is critical to understand the fundamental concepts around motivation before jumping into today’s discussion. Review it here: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation.


Rewards vs. Motivation

As you may recall, motivation is the reason that drives someone to do something (i.e. a behavior or an activity). Reward is a completely different animal. It is what you get for doing something rather than the reason for doing it in the first place. A simplistic way to look at the difference between motivation and reward is that motivations generally come before the behavior, but rewards come after the behavior.


motivation vs reward px550.png 


So what is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards?


Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards

rewards-trophy px250.pngAn intrinsic reward is an intangible award of recognition, a sense of achievement, or a conscious satisfaction. For example, it is the knowledge that you did something right, or you helped someone and made their day better. Because intrinsic rewards are intangible, they usually arise from within the person who is doing the activity or behavior. So “intrinsic” in this case means the reward is intrinsic to the person doing the activity or behavior.


An extrinsic reward is an award that is tangible or physically given to you for accomplishing something. It is a tangible recognition of ones endeavor. For example, it’s a certificate of accomplishment, a trophy or medal for winning the race, a badge or points for doing something right, or even a monetary reward for doing your job. Because extrinsic rewards are tangible, they are usually given to the person doing the activity; as such, they are typically not from within the person. Therefore, extrinsic rewards means the reward is extrinsic to the performer of the activity or behavior.


Here is an important distinction that I like to emphasize. When talking about rewards, intrinsic rewards are those that originate from within the person, and extrinsic rewards are those that originate from something beyond the person.


However—as you might recall the previous post—when talking about motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic has nothing to do with whether the motivation originates from within the person or outside the person. Instead, it means whether the motivation is intrinsic to the activity or not.


Why People are Confused about Reward vs Motivation

int + ext motivation vs reward px300.PNGHere is the tricky part, so stay with me. Some people may be driven by rewards. So rewards can sometimes be the reason that drives people to do things. Thus the rewards we get, can sometimes be the motivation. However, people do thing for many reasons beyond the rewards, so there are many motivations that are not rewards.


Since rewards can sometimes be a motivation, is it an intrinsic motivation or extrinsic? This is an important question and one that has confused many in the gamification industry. You see, I said it was tricky!


It’s not difficult to see that doing something for the rewards is just the opposite—at least in spirit—of doing something simply for the love of doing it (i.e. intrinsic motivation). So when an activity or behavior is motivated by rewards, it is always extrinsically motivated. In other words, when rewards become the reason that drives someone to do some activity or behavior, they won’t be doing it purely for its own sake anymore. Therefore all rewards—both intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards—are by definition extrinsic motivations (i.e. extrinsic to the activity or behavior).



Just because we happen to use the same set of words (i.e. “intrinsic” and “extrinsic”) to describe two different concepts (i.e. rewards and motivation), it doesn’t mean those words mean the same thing. This is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that human language is simply not precise enough compared to mathematics and computer science. This is compounded by the fact that academic research tends to be very narrowly focused, and disparate disciplines often do not have enough communication with each other.


When speaking about motivation, the terms “intrinsic” or “extrinsic” means intrinsic/extrinsic with respect to the behavior—whether or not the reason for doing something is simply the love of doing that very thing. But when speaking about rewards, these same terms mean intrinsic/extrinsic with respect to the person—whether or not the reward originates from within the person doing the activity.


Next time you talk to a person or company claiming to be experts in gamification, ask them about the difference between intrinsic/extrinsic rewards vs. intrinsic/extrinsic motivation. I guarantee you will be able to spot the fakes from the professionals.


I hope the last two posts have removed some of the confusion/fog on this topic.  Please let me know your comments or any other clarifications you would like.

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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+.


This is very insightful! Thank you!

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @Howard,


Glad you find this post insightful.

Hope you like the rest of the articles in this gamification series.


See you again next time. 



Greetings Dr. Wu,


I deeply enjoyed the clarity expressed in this blog series. Indeed, I've been trying to explain these concepts to my co-teachers in a Denver high school.


So, I have to questions for even greater clarity:


1. Does pushing ever more extrinsic motivation, or rewards, tend to reduce the person's intrinsic motivation to do the task? Does the person move their internal locos of joy to an external locus which is by definition less satisfying? I'm not sure I believe that the relationship is a 'given', and yet I know of various examples that could be explained this way.


2. Are there way in which to 'boost' intrinsic motivation? I presume the answer is yes, and yet, also presume it to be know. My rationale:


A. If we work to create an activity which meets our needs (as teachers), and also entails autonomy (choice of what to learn and how to learn it), mastery, (shows measurable progress [this is measured extrinsically], is performed by others in the classroom, (relatedness), and can be shown to lead to some other deeper meaning [recognizably extrinsic], can we shift the locus of motivation from outside the student to within?


B. People desire recognition (work behavior premise), yet recognition is by definition extrinsic. Is there a risk of recognizing intrinsically motivated behaviors leading to reduction in the behavior? [As such, relatedness, mastery, and purpose listed above are inextricably tied to things outside the body]


Thanks in advance for more engaging reading. I love your concepts and explanations.



Terry Rosen

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Glad you like it @Makc37. Thx for letting me know.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @misterrosen,


First, my apology for responding so late. The notification email for this comment got stuck in my clutter folder and I just recover it.


Thank you for your questions. Let me give it a stab to see if I can clarify it more.


1. Although science keeps discovering new findings, so far the data do suggest that extrinsic rewards do have a crowding out effect for intrinsic motivation. That, if you keep pushing extrinsic rewards to people, you will inadvertently reduce their intrinsic motivation for the task. It's know as the overjustification effect. It's a fairly well documented phenomenon.


That said, it doesn't mean this effect will apply to everyone in every case. Some people's intrinsic motivation may be so strong that they simple don't pay attention to the extrinsic rewards. Which is the case for some admirable academicians, artist, musicians, etc. who refuse to be bought. Some may call them stupid, but they simply have more conviction about what they do.


However, I wouldn't say that extrinsic rewards are "by definition" less satisfying, they are just different. They often satisfy people faster, but that satisfaction feeling also go away faster. So extrinsic rewards can be seen as more satisfying than intrinsic in the short term. But over longer time horizons, yes, extrinsic is less satisfying than their intrinsic counterpart.


2. The answer is yes, but it's hard.


A. You can shift people's locus of motivation from outside to within, but keep in mind that simply shift their focus from extrinsic reward to intrinsic rewards, with are both still extrinsic motivation. The trick is that the students have to really learn it (have a epiphany or some realization like an aha moment).


But it's really difficult to tell if student really learned something. They can just remember it all, but haven't actually learn anything. They may do what you want them to do and even act like they enjoy doing it, but not really learn to love it just for the sake of doing it.


Bottom line is you can but it's not easy.


B. Yes recognition is an extrinsic motivation, but it can be an intrinsic reward that is not tangible. Remember that any reward (intrinsic or extrinsic) are extrinsic motivation b/c they are no part of the behavior. 


I don't think there is a danger of recognizing intrinsic motivation leading to a reduction of the behavior, because you can't really recognize intrinsic motivation easily. Like I said, you can have external measure for them, but you never really know what's the real reason someone do something. And it's hard to prove it because you would have to take away all the extrinsic motivations (which include both intrinsic rewards as well as extrinsic rewards) and demonstrate that this person still love doing the task.


Remember, intrinsic motivation means the reason you do something is inherent part of the behavior that you are doing; that means what drive to do something is actually just that you are doing, and nothing else (please read my previous blog for a deeper discussion). So I would just recognize lightly but seriously, and emphasize that is the exemplary behavior (that is if you are really sure he's intrinsically motivated, which you cannot really prove).


Ok, I hope I've clarify any confusion you may have. But if anything is still unclear, please let me know. I'm happy to discuss further here.



Great article, thank you.



the post is indeed very insightful. I would like to know are rewards like recognition like pat on back, praiseworthy words infront of peers be considered as instrinsic rewards as these are non tangible or will it be considered as extrinsic rewards as its external and not internal to one's satisfaction. Can we classify all non tangible rewards (acknowledgement of good work infront of peers, pat on the back etc) as intrinsic rewards?




Excellent article!



Nice Article. Thanks For sharing


Hi Michael,

I honestly can't believe it's been 2.5 years since I first found this blog. Seems like yesterday.

I have reviewed it a few times in those years, and followed up by re-examining Alfie Kohn's books, (and references there-in).

Kohn's work is focused entirely on questioning extrinsic motivational techniques in school, and as parents. His view is generally extrinsic=bad, and his view is supported by mountains of research evidence.

One of his favorite examples is the Pizza Hut Book It! program.  The book it program encourages children to read books in exchange for which they receive a slice of pizza.

The evidence shows that 'some' children who begin the program reading books above their grade level, out of personal interest, will shift their focus onto lower level, shorter books, and when the program ends, may never return to reading at all.

The supposition is not that ALL children will experience this, but that some may, and that we cannot predict which ones.

The further concern is that the children experience a shift away from reading for joy,  (intrinsic), to reading for Pizza, (extrinsic), and when the pizza stops, the reading stops.

In a different study involving punishment, students who were administered punishment for aggression at home often show a reduction in aggression at home, but an increase in aggression at school.

This would indicate that the punishment is not correlated with aggression, but rather, with aggression 'at home'.

This is very simply compared to dog training, at my house, where mom's 'no' is ignored, but dad's 'no' elicits a stop to a behavior.

In the venue of dogs, we experimented by giving the dogs treats every time they went in their kennels. It was a matter of two weeks before they refused to go toward the kennel unless they saw a treat being readied.

We replaced the treats with hugs and attention prior to kenneling, and in two months the dogs then began entering the kennel without a treat, but after receiving hugs and attention. (Still extrinsic)

I think Kohn equates dogs (animalia in general), to three year old humans, and thus equates giving extrinsic rewards to older children and adults as a mistake.