Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Motivates Us and Why

Research explains the interplay between tangible rewards and personal fortitude.

Nathan Siemers/ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Source: Nathan Siemers/ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

By Sheri Hall

Much of society today is focused on striving—for better grades, a raise or promotion, fitness achievements and more. Teachers, business managers and even community leaders are looking for ways to motivate people.

As my children get older, I find myself spending more time thinking about how to motivate them to make good choices. Should I pay them for their chores, or just expect them to pitch in around the house? How do I inspire them to do their best on their schoolwork?

The same questions apply in the workforce: Does extra compensation encourage employees to perform better? And at the gym: What’s the best way to encourage people to stick to an exercise routine? And at the community level: Should we incentivize people to recycle?

The answers to these questions are complicated of course. But the research does draw some clear conclusions about motivation.

Let’s start with two definitions. First, intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you find it gratifying, such as reading a novel because you enjoy the story. Then there’s extrinsic motivation, which happens when your behavior is driven by a reward such as collecting 10 cents when you return a soda can at the grocery store.

There are reams of research about the benefits of and interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Let’s take a look at some of the meta-analyses on this topic:

  • A systematic review published in 2013 looked at whether it is effective to pay adults to exercise. Researchers found 11 randomized-controlled trials that offered participants financial incentives to work out. In this analysis, the rewards worked! Analyzing the data from all 11 studies, researchers found people who received financial incentives increased their attendance by nearly 12 percent. But these incentives only worked in the short-term—up to six months. Although the reviewers identified one study where participants adhered to a walking program for one year with financial incentives, not enough data were available to be conclusive.
  • A second, far-reaching review published in 2014 asked (among other questions) what matters more—intrinsic motivation or external incentives? This one included more than 200,000 participants and 183 studies that measured motivation for school, work and physical fitness. It drew some broad conclusions. Among them, intrinsic motivation is a strong predictor of performance with or without any external rewards. This meta-analysis also uncovered an interesting detail. The data showed that intrinsic motivation mattered more for quality, while external rewards were better at promoting quantity. In other words, if you just want to make it to the gym more often, a reward system will probably do the trick. But if you want to put in quality workouts focused on a specific goal, then you need to find your own personal motivation.
  • A third review looked at ways to encourage intrinsic motivation among—specifically those learning about health professions at the college level. Researchers pulled together information from 16 studies, and found that when teachers supported students in certain ways, the students were more likely to be intrinsically motivated. These included respecting students and offering emotional support, providing different learning approaches and appropriate challenges, promoting active participation, providing freedom in learning and offering positive and constructive feedback.

While complex, there are some clear take-home messages here. External rewards can motivate people to a point, especially over short periods of time or when the focus is on quantity over quality. But intrinsic motivation is always a factor, and inspires more quality in performance.

So how do we encourage more intrinsic motivation? Through emotional support, respecting people’s perspectives and offering appropriate challenges and productive feedback.

That brings me back to my kids. Based on the research, I’m going to skip the payment for chores and do my best to teach them to want to help. It will probably mean that fewer chores get done now, but I’m betting it will pay off in the long run.

More from The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research
More from Psychology Today