Extrinsic Rewards

intrinsic motivation, rewards offered
The degree to which a person is intrinsically motivated and the appeal of the reward to the person affect the effect of the extrinsic reward.

DOMAINS: business, education, management, psychology
ContributorsAllison Steele
School of Library and Information Science
Simmons College

Harlow, Harlow, and Meyer (1950), Edward Deci


Harlow et al. (1950) is cited as the first to distinguish between intrinsic motivation and external rewards. Harlow studied rhesus monkeys given a puzzle-solving task. Their interest and motivation to complete these puzzles was labeled intrinsic motivation. When they were rewarded for completing these tasks, it was labeled extrinsic motivation. (Akin-Little, Eckert, Lovett, & Little, 2004)  This theory did not get much attention until 1971 when Edward L. Deci presented his theory on the effect of external rewards on intrinsic motivation.

Deci (1975) defined intrinsic and extrinsic motivation:
  • Intrinsically motivated behavior is “one for which there exists no recognizable reward except the activity itself.” (Akin-Little et al., 2004, p. 345)
  • Extrinsically motivated behavior “refers to behavior controlled by stimuli external to the task.” (Akin-Little et al., 2004, p. 345)
Many researchers have attempted to define intrinsic and extrinsic behavior, and while these basic definitions are generally not refuted, what drives internal motivation is a point of contention among researchers. These internal drives have been defined as “the need for achievement (McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell, 1953), the need to be effective and competent in dealing with one’s environment (White, 1959), the need to conceive of oneself the locus of causality (DeCharms, 1968), or the need to be self determining and competent (Deci).” (Akin-Little et al., 2004, p. 346)  Despite this vigorous debate, it is widely agreed that intrinsic motivation is more positive than extrinsic motivation.

The Debate
Do rewards meant to motivate really have a negative effect on self-motivation, curiosity, interest, and persistence? There is not one theory on extrinsic rewards and their effect on motivation. In fact there has been much debate about the effect, if any, extrinsic rewards have on intrinsic motivation since Deci (1971) put forth his findings that extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. Some argue that extrinsic rewards do not have an effect on intrinsic motivation (Cameron & Pierce, 2005), a theory that is strongly refuted by Deci et al. Below is a look at some of the leading arguments.

  • In 1974 a study by Greene and Lepper found that “extrinsic rewards undermined later intrinsic interest only when the child expected a reward for performing a task.”’ (Landen & Willems, 2001, p. 283) They believed that extrinsic rewards needed to be used in some cases, but that they must be just powerful enough to control behavior and should be phased out before intrinsic motivation suffered. (Landen & Willems, 2001)

  • In 1994 Cameron and Pierce conducted a meta-analysis that concluded that extrinsic rewards do not harm intrinsic motivation. The results of this meta-analysis caused much debate and has subsequently been criticized as having been flawed. (Akin-Little et al., 2004, p. 354)

  • A study by Deci, Ryan, and Koster (1999) found that engagement-contingent rewards did not undermine intrinsic motivation. Completion-contingent and performance-contingent rewards, on the other hand, did undermine intrinsic motivation.  (Selart, 2008, p.  442-443)

  • Cameron and Pierce hold that the affect extrinsic rewards have on intrinsic motivation is insignificant. Furthermore, they maintain that teachers can continue to use rewards in their classrooms with no detrimental effects to learning. (Deci et al, 2001, p. 1)

  • “A recent experiment by Pierce et al. (2003) examined how rewards effect intrinsic motivation when they were tied to meeting increasingly demanding performance (progressive) standards and unchanging (constant) standards. “ (Cameron, Pierce, Banko, & Gear, 2005, p.  642) The study found that those involved in meeting progressive standards showed higher intrinsic motivation than those asked to meet constant standards or who received no reward. However when they were offered a reward to perform up to the researcher’s standards, intrinsic motivation decreased. They did note, however that there was no negative effect on autonomy. They found that “under certain conditions, rewards can increase perceptions of autonomy that, in turn, lead to higher intrinsic motivation.”  (Cameron et al., 2005, p. 643)

Cognitive Evaluation Theory and Extrinsic Rewards
Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) proposed that underlying intrinsic motivation is the need for competence and self-determination. The effects external events, such as rewards, have on intrinsic motivation relies on how these events influence an individuals competence and self-determination. (Deci et al., 2001, p.  3) More information about CET can be found on the Cognitive Evaluation Theory page.


There has been a lot of debate over whether extrinsic rewards affect intrinsic motivation. As study after study is conducted, there appears to be no conclusive theory, though most agree external rewards can potentially have a detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation. As for how and to what degree, the debate is still ongoing.


Extrinsic rewards should be used cautiously as motivators fro student learning. In a library setting for example, the motivation for a student learning how to locate specific materials in the library would be finding the item he was seeking. The reward is a direct consequence of and the motivation for the task to begin with. Rewards of this type promote intrinsic motivation and student learning. They also help students develop positive attitudes related to the task at hand, in this case learning library skills.  The goal is to create lifelong learners and extrinsic rewards can undermine that.
REFERENCES ~ Coding Spreadsheet - Web View

  • Akin-Little, K., Eckert, T., Lovett, B., & Little, S. (2004). Extrinsic reinforcement in the classroom: Bribery or best practice. School Psychology Review, 33(3), 344-362. Abstract: The debate over the effects of the use of extrinsic reinforcement in classrooms, businesses, and societal settings has been occurring for over 30 years. Some theorists have cautioned against the use of reward, whereas others have found little, if any, detrimental effect. This article examines the debate with an emphasis on data-based findings. The extrinsic/intrinsic dichotomy is explored along with seminal studies in both the cognitive and behavioral literatures. The results from important meta-analytic studies are presented. From this review, it is concluded that little detrimental effect is found with the use of external reinforcement. Readers are given specific recommendations on the appropriate use of reinforcement programs in educational settings. (abstract from author)

  • Cameron, J., Pierce, W., Banko, K., & Gear, A. (2005). Achievement-based rewards and intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive mediators. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 641-655. Abstract: This study assessed how rewards impacted intrinsic motivation when students were rewarded for achievement while learning an activity, for performing at a specific level on a test, or for both. Undergraduate university students engaged in a problem-solving activity. The design was 2 x 2 with 2 levels of reward in a learning phase (reward for achievement, no reward). Intrinsic motivation was measured as time spent on the experimental task and ratings of task interest during a free-choice period. A major finding was that achievement based rewards during learning or testing increased participants’ intrinsic motivation. A path analysis indicated that 2 processes (perceived competence and interest-internal attribution) mediated the positive effects of achievement-based rewards in learning and testing on intrinsic motivation. Findings are discussed in terms of the cognitive evaluation, attribution, and social-cognitive theories. (abstract from author)

  • Davis, K., Winsler, A., & Middleton, M. (2006). Students' perceptions of rewards for academic performance by parents and teachers: Relations with achievement and motivation in college. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 167(2), 211-220. Abstract: In this study the authors examined the reports of 136 undergraduate students on the frequency they received various types of rewards from parents and teachers for past and present academic achievement and to explore the effect childhood reward history had on academic achievement and motivation in college. The results show external rewards were common for students at all grade-levels. It also showed that reward history had a strong effect on motivation and academic achievement in college. The authors discuss the findings.

  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., Ryan, R., & Cameron, J. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again: Comment/reply. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1-51. Abstract: The finding that extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation has been highly controversial since it first appeared (Deci, 1971). A meta-analysis published in this journal (Cameron & Pierce, 1994) concluded that the undermining effect was minimal and largely inconsequential for educational policy. However, a more recent meta-analysis (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999) showed that the Cameron and Pierce meta-analysis was seriously flawed and that its conclusions were incorrect. This article briefly reviews the results of the more recent meta-analysis, which showed that tangible rewards do indeed have a substantial undermining effect. The meta-analysis provided strong support for cognitive evaluation theory (Deci & Ryan, 1980), which Cameron and Pierce had advocated abandoning. The results are briefly discussed in terms of their relevance for educational practice. (abstract from author)

  • Hall, P. (2009). Beyond rewards. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 18(3), 49-53. Abstract: This article focuses on the impact of using rewards to control learning and behavior in students. The article examines the use a token economy in the classroom. He warns that a token economy may work for a short while but will not last. He discusses the effect this type of system can have on learning, especially for those students who may have a learning disability. The author argues that if children receive rewards for displaying socially appropriate behavior they will not be able to function as mature, socially responsible adults. The author suggests the use of the principle of logical sequence instead, which he outlines.

  • Landen, J., & Willems, A. (1979). Do You Really know how to motivate children?. Education, 99(3), 283-286. Abstract: The role of motivation in learning is a complex and varied process. In studies conducted by Greene and Lepper concerning the complexities of motivating preschool and elementary school pupils, it was found that extrinsic rewards undermined motivation. In an attitudinal survey conducted with fifth grade pupils, it was found that negative attitudes were formed toward forced activities that were at one time considered desirable. Evidence presented suggests that extrinsic motivation, either by reward or forced activity, is inferior to intrinsically developed motivation. (abstract from author)

  • Selart, M., Nordstrom, T., Kuvaas, B., & Takemura, K. (2008). Effects of reward on self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and creativity. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 52(5), 439-458. Abstract: This article evaluates the effects of two types of rewards (performance-contingent versus engagement-contingent) on self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and creativity. Forty-two undergraduate students were randomly assigned to three conditions; i.e. a performance-contingent reward group, an engagement-contingent reward group and a control group. Results provide little support for the negative effects of performance rewards on motivational components. However, they do indicate that participants in the engagement-contingent reward group and the control group achieved higher rated creativity than participants in the performance-contingent reward group. Alternative explanations for this finding are discussed. (abstract from author)