What does it take for you to get it done? The role of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations on goal pursuit (1)

I studied my bachelor at a big, campus university. By this nature, all the faculties were collocated next to each other, allowing the student organizations from different departments to organize extra- curricular activities and conferences to a wide range of audiences. However, in despite of this potential audience pool, these activities were suffering from a low level of participation. This was a problem and university administration came up with a solution.

Starting from the next academic year, students had to take a mandatory one credit course; this course required students to collect points by attending various talks and symposia organized within the campus. The longer the symposium, the more points you collect. In order to pass the course, students needed to reach a minimum amount of points. At the first glance, this may seem like an effective solution for the existing problem. But, is this really the case? Is this an effective strategy in the long run? Or does attending these talks to collect points just diminish the enjoyment students experience?

The literature on motivation offers a fresh and critical approach to answer these questions. To do certain tasks or to adjust to a new behavior, one simply needs to be motivated to do so. However, not all motivations are the same by nature or effective at the same level. One can work on a specific project just because he finds it inherently interesting and fun, or maybe because he will be paid extra for doing it. Now you may ask yourself: Does it really matter to know what kind of motivations they have as long as they both lead to the same behavior? The simple answer to that question is: yes, it does. To dig a bit deeper into the topic of motivation and to give a more comprehensive answer, one needs to know about Self Determination Theory (SDT).

Self Determination Theory and Motivation 

Self-determination theory is known as a theory of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). According to the theory, we distinguish between different types of motivation based on the different reasons or goals that give rise to an action (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  One basic distinction is between intrinsic and extrinsic type of motivations. Intrinsic motivation refers to do something because it is inherently interesting and enjoyable. Remember the time when you were reading this book that was not related to your work but you just enjoyed reading it? It was because you were intrinsically motivated to read that book. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to do something because it leads to an outcome that is detached form the task itself. Let’s say you want to help your little child to acquire reading habit like you have and as a strategy, you give 10 cents for each page she reads. By implementing this strategy, you make your child extrinsically motivated for the reading activity.

Research on extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation suggests that the type of motivation we have influences various aspects of our performance such as the level of engagement and the quality of the experience. Individuals who perform tasks with an intrinsic motivation have been found to be more persistent with it and this persistence increases a positive self-perception and leads to a better quality of engagement. Therefore, performing with an intrinsic motivation leads individuals to perform better for a longer period of time compared to those who are motivated with external rewards. What happens then, if you reward someone who is already intrinsically motivated? You may intuitively think that the extra reward boosts the performance. However, the literature says the opposite. The meta-analysis study conducted by Deci and colleagues shows that tangible rewards have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation. Keeping this in mind, it does not seem like a good strategy to reward your child with money to help her gain reading habit. These results from the meta-analysis study show that giving extra money may even diminish the enjoyment your child experiences from the activity itself.

Nowadays though, it is very difficult to find and engage on activities that are only intrinsically motivating and that is why extrinsic motivation strategies are used frequently in different contexts including working environments. Luckily, extrinsic motivation also varies within itself and its’ effectiveness. A classical study by Deci and Ryan argues that instrumental value of the goal plays an important role in distinguishing one kind of extrinsic motivation from another (2000). By increasing the sense of autonomy of the task, one can still use the extrinsic motivation and increase the quality of the engagement at the same time.Overall, a better understanding of motivation is essential for developing effective behavior change strategies for both online and offline environments. At Braynz we take these motivations into account and apply it to our projects.

How can we study motivation by using neuromarketing tools?

In one of the recent UX projects, we have designed an experiment for a better understanding of clients’ motivations. In this project, we targeted the users who use online panels to participate in online surveys and earn small amounts of money in return. We aimed to answer the following questions: is receiving cash a good motivation for respondents to stay in the panel in the long run? If not, what can we offer as an alternative? And more importantly, how can we show respondents the importance of their contribution so that they can engage better with the surveys they are filling in. To test these, we used both qualitative and quantitative methods. First, we conducted interviews with students who are experienced with participating online surveys. Then, together with the input we got from interviews, a discrete choice experiment was designed. In this experiment, two different rewards were placed next to each other and participants were asked to choose one over the other (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. An example pair of stimuli that is used in the discrete choice experiment. 

Conditions differed depending on the length of the surveys, thinking that the preference of rewards may differ based on the effort they put in. Additionally, the analysis of the interviews highlighted that most of the participants wanted to receive information regarding the results of the studies that they participated. Therefore, we also added another variable in which includes receiving / not receiving the results of the study and paired them together with rewards. Once the analysis is finished, we aim to answer the questions that we mentioned above and share it with you in our follow up blog post.

Coming back to the story I told you in the beginning, what do you think about the strategy that the student administration developed? Do you think that it is an effective way? Or do you think it will kill all the enjoyment students used to experience from participating these activities? How can you apply this knowledge to the work environment or mobile apps that aim to change behaviors using points as rewards?

What is next?

As you can see, there is a lot to cover. Therefore, I plan to write another blog post that will include the findings of this experiment and more ideas on where and how to apply these differences in motivation. If you want to learn more about the results of the UX project, how we interpret the outcome and if you are curious about how to apply this knowledge into the real life, watch out for my next blog post!!

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact us.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.