Rewards and Motivation

You’ve probably heard the advice “When you’re doing well, give yourself a reward!” – it finds its way into just about every self-help book you’ve ever picked up.  But are there any times where this is bad advice?  Why, yes there are – when your motivation for a task is intrinsic.

I have explained what intrinsic motivation is and how to get it in “What’s your motivation?”, but briefly, extrinsic motivation is where you perform some task to achieve some benefit at the end of it, and intrinsic motivation is where the reward is the activity itself, rather than from any benefits that may come as a result of it.  For example, if you play football for the fun of it you’re intrinsically motivated, but if you playing football to lose some weight you’re extrinsically motivated.  And there are shades of grey between the two.

If you’re intrinsically motivated to do a task, you’re in a good place.  Say you love writing.  You’re more likely to sit down and do it, because you enjoy it for it’s own sake, and you’ll probably be better at it as a result. 

But if you start receiving money for writing, something strange happens.  

“Intrinsic motivation is hindered by tangible rewards.”

A part of you thinks “I’m doing this for the money”.   Intrinsic motivation comes when our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met; anything that provides for these needs will tend to increase intrinsic motivation, anything that undermines them will decrease intrinsic motivation.  Receiving money for writing is an external control – it will undermine autonomy to some extent, because you are not doing the task purely for the enjoyment of it.  

Intrinsic motivation goes hand-in-hand with enjoyment of the activity, performance, vitality, and self-esteem.  If you’re intrinsic motivation takes a hit, these things potentially could too.

Maybe this is why a band’s second album usually isn’t as good as their first?

Effective Rewards

So is there a way to receive a reward without it being seen as controlling?  Yes, by making it unexpected.  Unexpected rewards have no bearing on intrinsic motivation.  Obviously, if you’re using rewards on yourself, you can’t very well  give yourself a surprise reward.  Even if you set up a clock with a randomised timer, you’re still expecting it to go off at some point.  

But if you’re a manager, going up to someone at a random time and saying “Bob, you’ve done well this month.  We’re giving you an extra $300!” will not undermine intrinsic motivation, whereas saying “Bob, do well this month and you’ll get an extra $300!” will.

Important note: Remember, this only applies to intrinsic motivation – those times when a task is already interesting.  If you look at the previous article on this subject, you’ll see that in the diagram (scroll down a bit), there are a few types of extrinsic motivation.  If the motivation for an activity is currently extrinsic, it’s OK to use rewards.  

For example, if you really don’t want to go to the gym but know that you must, then it’s OK to get a movie as reward for completing your workout.  Or if you’re an employer and there’s a repetitive or more dreaded part of the job, rewards will increase your employees motivation to do it.

Positive Feedback

The above only applies to tangible rewards.  Money, gifts, cookies; whatever.  If the reward is verbal, different rules apply – positive feedback will actually enhance intrinsic motivation.  This seems to be, in part, because a verbal reward tends to be unexpected.  It’s not like your boss ever says “Bob, do a good job this month and I’ll give you some positive feedback!”

“Verbal rewards can enhance intrinsic motivation – if they’re seen as informational

There are several studies that confirm this.  They look at times when the participants are told to expect an evaluation of their performance on a task.  An anticipated evaluation that includes positive feedback does seem to undermine intrinsic motivation.

But the primary reason that positive feedback is effective is that it provides a feeling of competence to the recipient, one of the three requirements of intrinsic motivation mentioned above.

Because of this, if positive feedback is given in an authoritative and controlling way, it too will undermine intrinsic motivation.  So verbal rewards need to be informative, not controlling, and preferably not given solely in expected appraisals.

Again, this is more difficult to apply to self-administered rewards.


One interesting question raised by this research, is what would happen if you take something you love, and try to make a career out of it?  While previously, you only played the violin or wrote poetry for pleasure and relaxation, now part  of your motivation is to make money, pay the bills, achieve recognition in your field, and so on.

The data suggests that your intrinsic motivation would be undermined by this, to some extent.  

But as mentioned above, intrinsic motivation comes from three sources – autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  Entering a career as a violinist might open you to relationships with other like-minded individuals, which could compensate for the extrinsic rewards.

You could always consciously make effort to increase autonomy, competence and relatedness.  More on that in this article.


When it comes to children, just throw the whole rule book out of the window.  With a predictable awkwardness so typical of their kind, children respond differently to rewards than adults do.  

Firstly, in terms of tangible rewards, children are more detrimentally affected.  So tangible rewards must be used carefully with kids, so as not to negatively affect their intrinsic motivation.

Secondly, verbal rewards appear to have no effect on intrinsic motivation in children.  See.  I knew they didn’t listen!

Whatever you do, don’t take the above two paragraphs as advice.  I’m just putting this information in the article in case any parents reading this were planning to use their child as a guinea pig – things work differently for kids, so don’t bother trying!  

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t turn the apple of your eye into a psychology experiment, for the good of science; only that you should seek the advice of a professional or find a proper source of information first!


Just a final note based on my experiences with quitting smoking and other things.  If you need motivation to abstain from a particular thing, many sources recommend rewarding yourself with that thing.

Example – you’re trying to quit junk food, so if you’ve managed to refrain from eating burgers all week, the advice goes, go ahead and chomp down on the weekend, to get the craving out of your system.

Mileage may vary, but I would advice you NOT to reward yourself with the thing you’re abstaining from!   I think it’s a rationalisation, an excuse to hop off the wagon.  For me personally, it also seems to increase cravings, not reduce them.  There might be some neurological explanation for this; I know there is for smoking, but it might be the case when quitting other things too.

So if you’re quitting junk food, reward yourself with a night at the theatre, a new hair cut, an item of clothing etc – not a cheeseburger.

Recommended Reading:


Deci, E., Koestner, R. & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Psychological Bulletin. 125:6, 627-668


  • rama says:

    I perfectly agree that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation ought to achieve harmony for a higher success rate of motivation.

    • Warren Davies says:

      Yeah I like how you describe it in that article. You summed up in one paragraph something that took me 900 words!


  • Hi there Warren,

    I think that this is all about balance and not just rewarding ones self even though there is nothing better than that special gift to ones self, I have to say that, when I read the part with if you stopping junk food or smoking and ones reward is to have one or the other at the end of the week to get rid of the craving I don’t think it has any thing really to do with the cravings, but rather to get the body and mind away from it completely, cause in this case if you reward the body or mind with the thing that you are actually giving up are we not then just training the brain and body that if you don’t do for a week you will have and the end, creating a whole different craving, and then in the end one really isn’t quitting, well thats what I think, I could be wrong on the whole matter completely.
    Or maybe it is right, and could be food for thought.

    Best regards

    • Warren Davies says:

      That’s a really good point. I guess when you abstain, it’s fairly easy at first when you’re enthusiastic, but at some point the going gets a little tough and you’re training yourself to quit as soon as that happens. A thought worth digesting!

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