Science of Learning: Extrinsic Motivation

Over the next few days, I will present a few articles about academic motivation. First, I need to lay the groundwork for understanding the basics of motivation.

Ryan and Deci are the two principle researchers in this field, and they tell us that intrinsic motivation is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one’s capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge. It is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for reward. Intrinsic motivation is what we want to do.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAA3KAAAAJGFlYmIwZjE5LTE5YTItNDQyNy1hNjFkLWYyOGNlZjcxMThlNwExtrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain the desired outcome and it is the opposite of intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation comes from influences outside of the individual.

Basically, all motivation can be categorized into one of these two basic types – internally driven (intrinsic) or externally motivated (extrinsic). We are all familiar with both types of motivations, and we see them play out in our lives every day. They are rarely clean-cut, and often, there is an interplay, however, at the end of the day, why we do something can be categorized into intrinsic or extrinsic or a complex mixture of the two. As an example, going to work will often have an extrinsic component (need money to pay the bills), and an intrinsic component (I like what I do for a job). However, you can usually figure out what the real motivator is if you think about it.

Research has taken an otherwise simple phenomenon and made it really complicated. This is because the two types of motivation have a complicated relationship with each other. When we do something with a mixture of motivations (intrinsic and extrinsic), over time, the extrinsic motivators lead to a reduction in our intrinsic motivation. When we receive an external reward, (like money for work, recognition for a project, power from manipulating others, or good looks from exercise) for engaging in an activity, our internal reasons for doing it are reduced, and might eventually be extinguished.

How this can and does play out in education is both interesting and surprising.


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