Showing results for 
Show  only  | Search instead for 
Did you mean: 

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

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

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+.