Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Exist

Why Extrinsic Motivation Doesn't Exist, DrJasonJones.com

Quick Question: Is the money you pursue in your job or business an extrinsic motivator? Yes or No?

Most people say yes to this question. It’s easy for us to think working for money is an extrinsically motivated activity because it is behavior motivated by an external reward.

I have a different perspective. The idea that pursuing a paycheck being an extrinsically motivated activity is both short-sited and illogical. My perspective is backed by solid science, yet has been overshadowed by popular thought and invalid theory over the past 40 years.

In a prior blog post, I mention intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation as one of the 4 dichotomies of motivation. I only included this dichotomy because it’s a widely believed view of motivation and it can have some utility for understanding motives that lead toward an ultimate goal.

According to Steven Reiss, former Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University, “extrinsic motivation does not exist as a separate and distinct form of motivation.”  Reiss goes on to say, it is invalid to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  All motivation arises from the pursuit of universal goals common to everyone and deeply rooted in human nature.”

This certainly turns the traditional thought of extrinsic motivation upside down. Here’s an example that may help better explain why only intrinsic motivation exists.

Let’s say I ask you to run one mile and tell you that if you do I will give you $100. You decide to take me up on the deal. You run the mile and you happily accept the crisp Franklin.

Now, it may look as if you are extrinsically motivated by the tangible monetary reward of $100, but in fact, it’s not really the money itself you are after.

Let’s step back to the logic that actually exists in this situation. You may think about and weigh the time it takes to run or if you can actually run the mile.

Another important factor, however, is whether or not you need the money and what you would use the money for. In this case, you think you could really use the money to take a friend to dinner.

So looking at this situation a little deeper you see that your behavior was actually intrinsically motivated as you would be using the money to fulfill a need for belonging or social contact.

This points out the fact that what many call extrinsic motivation is really just a means to and ends. The “means” being the activity that will lead to the “ends” being the true reason or outcome you desire via the behavior or reward.

I don’t believe any of us go to work for the outcome of money alone. Rather, we go to work for deeper purposes and the money serves as a vehicle for achieving internal goals and satisfying internal needs.

These internal needs have been defined by professor Reiss over the past 2 decades utilizing confirmatory factor analysis on the motivational data of thousands of people around the world.

All motivated behavior can be mapped to the fulfillment of these desires that includes acceptance, curiosity, social contact, status, idealism, tranquility among others. All humans embrace these intrinsic needs but in varying degrees, which uniquely defines the personality of each person. See my blog post The 16 Drivers of Meaning and Motivation for more information on the 16 desires.

So the next time you think someone is being motivated by extrinsic reward, rethink the situation. Try to understand the internal need the behavior and reward are seeking to fulfill. This will help you have a much better understanding of what truly motivates the person.

Steven Reiss quotes taken from his blog posts at PsychologyToday.com. You can find these posts at the links below.

All Motivation is Intrinsic Motivation

Why Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Exist