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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+.