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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+.


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

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

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.



Will do thanks 🙂 look forward to reading that..


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 ??



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

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.



Dr. Wu:


No mention of Ryan, no Deci?

Good post!!


J. Paul Leavell

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

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.



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.





Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Terry ( @misterrosen ),


Thank you for raising your concern and such an interesting questions.


I apologize that I could not respond earlier. But now, I finally got the opportunity to respond to some loose-ends conversations on my blog. So let me try to address your concern.


First of all, I am familiar with both Alfie Kohn and Edward Deming, and I have deep respect for their work respectively. But as you said, we live in a society where traditional evaluation is deeply ingrained. So it may just be a necessary evil for now, which can only be undone over time. It will take time to undo the wrong system we put in place due to our own ignorance. So we all have to walk a very fine line between the modern view (of Deming and Kohn) and the more traditional views.


Second, I don’t believe there is any contradiction in what I said with Kohn and Deming. The grading system is what’s destroying the intrinsic motivation, not the student’s desire to do better. He or she is simply a victim of the system that we put in place, because we train him/her to believe that getting a good grade is a good thing, because the society will reward him/her for it. Given the right environment, we all will try our best to optimize our gain. In this respect, a student wanting to get a good grade is no different from someone trying to get some food because he’s hungry. Having desire is not bad, it’s human nature. The system is what’s flawed.


Third, I do believe that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has its place. They both exist for a reason. Biologically and evolutionarily, we and other animals respond to both because they are both important for our survival. It is not the case that intrinsic motivation is always better than their extrinsic counterpart. It really depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Good leaders should know how to leverage both. Unfortunately many leaders today are too focused on the extrinsic, because they tend to work faster and have more measurable effects.


Finally, you are right that I probably have made an assumption that “nothing is wrong,” when I said “there is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades.” But I felt that it’s a fair assumption, because we can easily find millions of things that is wrong with our world. If I want to be critical about it, I can easily go down the path that everything is wrong and we might as well reboot this entire world that we lived in. And even then there is no guarantee that the new system won’t create other problems.


One could easily argue that Kohn and Deming are wrong, because they publish their work to promote their selfish belief, for fame, and potential economic gain. We are too, because we have a job and trying to do things for our own economic gain, which is extrinsic too. Why do we accept payment? So is the economic system is wrong? Is capitalism is wrong because it’s not fair? But a purely utopian type of community is not perfect either because it kills motivation and encourages people to do the bare minimum. IMHO, I believe that everything that we do or said in this world is based on some assumptions. And these assumptions aren’t bad or wrong. They are merely our past experiences that shape our lives, our thinking, even our beliefs.


Thank you for your comment. It’s well taken. I don’t take disagreement personally, because I see it as an opportunity to further our knowledge. Besides, I like these academic debates, even though they could be very wrong and wasteful of earthly resources in someone’s eyes, since they often do not produce anything of value. But who is to decide what’s valuable? Isn’t that subjective? So if I am happy doing it should that be enough justification? But isn’t that just selfish? Why is this form of selfishness OK, and the student working by themselves and don't want to help other is not?


See the point? I don't think we can blame people for their sub-optimal behavior if the system is not perfect. But we can't blame the system either because they are created by less than perfect human beings just like ourselves.


Some of the problems we face are very complex. I don’t think we as a human species collectively are even close to having any real solutions to some of these problems we created. I can only hope for the best.


I hope you enjoy this discussion. I did.

See you next time.



Hi Michael,

I do enjoy your feedback. I, too, do not take it personally.

While I follow Kohn and Deming both, I can not say with certainty what Deming's source material was for integrating his ideas into his philosophy of improvement. I suspect, but cannot prove, that Kohn played a role. I did recently read an article related to Deming, that included similar research that I think predates Deming meeting Kohn. Deming's background research on the top is fuzzy.

But Kohn's is not. His works are one of the most thoroughly cited works I've ever read. So far as I've examined the sources, his conclusions seem in line with reason. It may not be hyperbole to say that ALL the research on the topic agrees with his positions/conclusions.

Specifically regarding grades, I want to insert a side note, from Malcolm Gladwell. He wrote a piece in Outliers regarding the fact that 70% of pro hockey players in Canada were born between January and July first.

I'll leave out the middle of the story, which is fascinating.

The conclusion, the selection was based on a January 1 cutoff date for age groups as young as 8 years old. This created an artificial bias that favored 'slightly older, bigger' kids. This resulted in the near impossibility of a Canadian youth hockey play born in November or December ever playing pro hockey. As you say, the system is/was at fault, not the youth players.

Yet, those youth you desired to play pro, but were born in the wrong month, may suffer from not meeting their biggest desire. They, and their parents, and other teammates, may even BLAME them for not doing better.

A child, being blamed, for something entirely out of their control.

This same result, surely exists, for American school children. I doctoral study in waiting must exist for someone to do the math. And, no future date is required. The trends could show quite easily that a bias exists even from simple calculations based on past data. In Outliers I believe Gladwell touched on this saying that at the time of publication only Denmark systematically separated content into levels at the elementary school level.

You did discuss overjustification, and you're obviously correct, that it does not negatively affect everyone. Or does it?

Dr. Deming does not refer to the issue as a problem in and of itself. He points out, rightly, that be they good grades or bad grades, all involved attribute the grades, usually in their entirety, to the student's effort. Deming, often deferring to Peter Scholtes, reminds us that this is utterly foolhardy. Family socioeconomic status is the highest predictor of academic success. Via Gladwell we learn that the Chinese cultural work ethic translates into willingness to stick with hard problems long, resulting in Chinese students with an IQ of 100 working comparably to American white students with an IQ 120. (I do not endorse IQ as measure, but some do). In other words, Chinese-American students benefit from Chinese culture, academically. (Outliers goes much further in various ways).

From Deming's view, which originated with Shewhart, establishes that in industry the individual worker affects the quality of the goods they produce between 3 and 7 percent. We would expect this in any robust system. Yet, when the worker's output result is a defect, historically their supervisor would 'blame' the defect entirely on the worker. Very similar to letter grading.

The issue then, in real life, is that children and willing workers CANNOT discern with any accuracy, whether their defect was indeed attributable to them, or if it is the result of a defective system, over which they have no control.

This misunderstanding happens, of course, for both 'good' and 'bad'. A worker may be fired over this mistake, or given a bonus for randomized successes.

Taleb reminds us that stock brokers that make large profits for five years in a row can't help but believe in themselves, that they know what they are doing, though statistically speaking nothing is happening, and they are succeeding at random.

Deming has a story related to your claim that we cannot know if a behavior is intrinsically motivated.

On arriving at the airport, the airline sent a worker with a wheelchair to assist Dr. Deming. A woman working the ticket counter badly wanted to meet him, so she volunteered.

She met Dr. Deming at the gate, and stayed with him until he entered his taxi, at which point, Dr. Deming, without thinking,  handed her two dollars as a tip.

He saw his mistake immediately, in her face. He had overattributed her behavior extrinsically when her desire was purely extrinsic, (using the common meaning here, not the/your correct meaning). In this case, she had already received her reward, then had it dashed away, belittled.

I'm convinced he knew.

In addition, one can discern, occasionally, by asking a question. "Why do you like reading so much?". "Because it's fun!" Whether precisely accurate or not, we have gotten a clue from a very simple analysis.

The benefits of extrinsic motivation are not arguable. The 'goal' of it is what is in question. And if we acknowledge that there is a drastic risk due to overjustification, how do we decide whether to address the risk?

It seems to me that much of gamification is the replacement of an intrinsic reward with an extrinsic one. This replacement, with each iteration, shifts the needle from intrinsic to extrinsic.

In my work I'm blessed to work with students who are doing well academically, extremely high risk of not graduating, (and that which follows). Often, their primary concern in class is simply 'their grades'. What do they need to do to 'pass'. Barely pass. Near zero interest in learning, or approaching problems of any modicum of difficulty, unless it's required to pass.

My narrative for them is that they have moved through 12 years of extrinsic motivation, (possibly born in the latter part of the window), and due to factors completely outside their control, 'believe' they are stupid, dumb, unworthy, bad at math, bad at drawing, and a host of other false myths.

The risk, as it were, of letter grading in school, is the demoralization of children that have no ability to discern fact from fiction. This is, in my view, immoral.

Would it not be immoral to tell kids that since they were born in the last half of the year, that they don't get to go to college? The factual issue here is completely clear, but I'm suggesting that overjustification is also immoral. And the risk, to children, is just too great.

But further, successful children, perhaps born in January, grow up 'believing' they have innate talent. Innate talent in math, music, creative arts. and a few may. The rest were just born.

Deming quotes this story. In Deming's book he states, "I have no reason to believe this story is false".

The quote is from The Face of Battle by John Keegan:

As to the influence and genius of great generals — there is a story that Enrico Fermi once asked Gen. Leslie Groves how many generals might be called “great.” Groves said about three out of every 100. Fermi asked how a general qualified for the adjective, and Groves replied that any general who had won five major battles in a row might safely be called great. This was in the middle of World War II. Well, then, said Fermi, considering that the opposing forces in most theaters of operation are roughly equal, the odds are one of two that a general will win a battle, one of four that he will win two battles in a row, one of eight for three, one of sixteen for four, one of thirty-two for five. “So you are right, general, about three out of every 100. Mathematical probability, not genius.”