Skip to content

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

‘Most of us assume that there exists a single thing called “motivation,” which people can have a lot of, a little of, or none of. Naturally, we want our kids to possess copious quantities of it, which is to say, we want them to be highly motivated to do their homework, to act responsible, and so forth.

The trouble, though, is that there are actually different kinds of motivation. Most psychologists distinguish between the intrinsic kind and the extrinsic kind. Intrinsic motivation basically means that you like what you’re doing for it’s own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end – in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment. It’s the difference between reading a book because you want to find out what happens in the next chapter and reading because you’ve been promised a sticker or a pizza for doing so.

The key point here isn’t just that extrinsic motivation is different from the intrinsic kind, or even that it’s inferior to intrinsic, although both statements are true. What I want to emphasise is that extrinsic motivation is likely to erode intrinsic motivation. As extrinsic goes up, intrinsic tends to come down. The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Of course, there are always qualifications and exceptions to any one-sentence summary of a psychological finding, but that basic proposition has been proven by literally scores of studies with people of different ages, genders, and cultural background – and with a variety of different tasks and rewards.’

– Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting

‘Unconditional Parenting’ is one of those books that I can point to as a fork in the road – one I read at the right time (back when my eldest was just entering toddlerhood), with new ideas, that set me off on a different path. That path has led to so many books, articles, interviews and ideas that agree with this point of view that it’s almost hard to remember how completely left-field it seemed at the time. Wait a minute, I shouldn’t say ‘good girl’ to pretty much everything? Sticker charts are a bad idea? But… but… how on earth do you get them to do anything then???

However the basic premise was pretty convincing – praising ‘good’ behaviour, time-outs, threats, rewards, withdrawing when our children don’t do what we want… they’re all external ways of manipulating our children into doing what makes our lives easy in the short term, and they’re not necessarily the best approach to guiding them into adults that make those decisions for themselves, not because of the immediate consequences, but because it’s just the right thing to do. That’s more likely to happen if we go for the long route of explaining our reasons, respecting their autonomy, and loving them – and making sure they know it – whether they live up to our standards or not.

It took a while to really get onboard with this. In fact, I’d read a shorter article, also by Alfie Kohn, on the same theme not long before which I was completely unconvinced by. But somehow, the book built the case in a way that was harder to ignore, for both me and my husband. Cue a big sigh, a concerted effort to change up the standard responses, and settling in for the long haul.

I’m going to level with you – I sometimes still say ‘because I told you to’. And lose it and shout until they just tidy the damn playroom. Or mention that once this gets done, there might be an ice-cream on offer for snack. It’s best that you take it for read that when it comes to any great ideal for how to raise children, or improve oneself, or do pretty much anything, I don’t always live up to the way I’d like to be. There’s loads of them, they want to eat All The Time, and some days I’m weary and my ‘best self’ would really quite like to be lying in bed eating Chipsticks and watching Life in Pieces back to back, thank you very much. But, when I am on form, I do at least want to make sure that my best efforts are working towards what I’d really like to achieve. ‘Unconditional Parenting’ challenges the conventional ideas about what that means. Whether you end up agreeing with it or not, if you let it, it’ll make you think. I’m all for that.

One Comment

  1. Sophie bradford Sophie bradford

    This comes so much later for me as some of my children have left home and others teens or nearing
    But I have recently ,following reading an article which quoted D.H Lawrence as saying
    ” the best way to educate a child
    Leave him alone ” decided to do just that and been so rewarded at the results.
    My child does actually have intrinsic motivation
    , what a beautiful phrase
    And his choises for himself are infinitely more suitable for him than my often fear imposed necessities.
    Letting go and letting God
    Trusting his own instincts and minding my own business are really setting us free!!
    Thanks for posting this Katie xx

Comments are closed.