Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

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This guest blog post is written by Kate Cornelius, marketing and community associate at OpenSesame, the world’s largest marketplace for buying and selling elearning courses. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh last year with a degree in anthropology, psychology, and women’s studies.


Should you motivate your employees with a carrot or a stick? What works best, rewards or punishment? The answer may surprise you.

Turns out, neither works for today’s employees. You may be holding on to your system of bonuses, incentives, and commission for nothing. These things may even hurt your business, though as you’ll see, it depends on the type of work you expect from your employees.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

It comes down to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is driven by an interest in the task itself and is not reward based, while extrinsic motivation is driven by an outside force, whether anticipation of a reward or fear of a punishment. The 20th century model of motivation holds the higher the reward, the better the performance; the more severe the punishment, the less the behavior will be exhibited.

This model is outdated and causes more harm than good, argues Daniel Pink in his 2009 book Drive ( Carrots and sticks often achieve the opposite of their intended goals.

Research started on the topic of motivation in the 1940s, with Henry Harlow’s experiments on monkeys. His work showed the monkeys were intrinsically motivated to solve puzzles; shockingly, their performance decreased when rewarded with food. Harlow went on to coin the term “intrinsic motivation,” but his research was all but forgotten. The idea was not explored again until 1969 and has been a hot topic ever since.

Case Studies

Pink uses the example of Encarta Encyclopedia versus Wikipedia. Two decades ago, no one would have bet Wikipedia would win out over Encarta, but that’s exactly what the free, open source Wikipedia did. Take other examples like Linux and Firefox– all created by intrinsically motivated people who participate for many reasons, often including the feeling of satisfaction and opportunity to sharpen their skills. No one is offering them a reward, yet they create some of the most successful software in the world.

The following cases are presented by Pink as examples of when the carrot and stick (extrinsic motivation) model failed:


A study done in Sweden on 153 female, would-be blood donors showed surprising results. The women were divided into three groups– voluntary donation, paid donation, and paid donation with the immediate option to donate to children’s charity. Contrary to what you might expect, the paid women decided to donate at a significantly lower rate– only 30% compared to the 52% by voluntary donors and 53% by paid-with-donation-option donors. The selfish reward “tainted” the altruistic desire.


A childcare facility in Israel measured the amount of late pickups by parents for four weeks. A fine was then implemented for late pickups; researchers found that they actually increased with a fine in place. Before the fine, the parents cared about the teachers and wanted to respect their time; once they were paying, they didn’t feel as bad. Pink calls this a change from “a moral obligation to a fair transaction.”

Algorithmic vs Heuristic Tasks

There is one circumstance in which the carrot and stick model works. As Pink brilliantly demonstrates in his TED Talk, extrinsic motivation is effective for rote, or algorithmic, tasks. Work that involves little to no creativity or innovation will be improved with rewards and punishments. However, only 30% of job growth comes from algorithmic tasks, while 70% comes from heuristic, or creative and innovative, work. External rewards and punishments “can be devastating for heuristic [tasks].”

What does this mean for your business?

Avoid Pink’s 7 deadly flaws of carrots and sticks:

1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation

2. They can diminish performance

3. They can crush creativity

4. They can crowd out good behavior

5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior

6. They can become addictive

7. They can foster short-term thinking

By moving to a system of intrinsic motivation and rewards (whether this is giving employees more power over their schedules, the ability to structure their own tasks, or free creative thinking time), you’ll find your employees are far more productive. Too many companies in the 21st century are still operating on a 20th century model of motivation; their assumptions about potential and performance are outdated and unexamined. Often, they still employ short-term strategies such as incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes that have been scientifically disproven. Your employees are motivated by these three factors, says Pink: autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives), mastery (the desire to learn and create new things), and purpose (to do better by ourselves and our world).

How do you motivate your employees? Major companies such as Atlassian and Google have made the leap in 21st century intrinsic employee motivation. Have you?

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