Welcome to this series on Success. I hope you find the readings thought provoking and inspiring. Please enjoy.

Motivation is the reason that drives someone to do something (i.e. a behavior or an activity). Reward is a completely different animal. It is what you get for doing something rather than the reason for doing it in the first place. A simplistic way to look at the difference between motivation and reward is that motivations generally come before the behavior, but rewards come after the behavior.

What is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards?

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards

An intrinsic reward is an intangible award of recognition, a sense of achievement, or a conscious satisfaction. For example, it is the knowledge that you did something right, or you helped someone and made their day better. Because intrinsic rewards are intangible, they usually arise from within the person who is doing the activity or behavior. So “intrinsic” in this case means the reward is intrinsic to the person doing the activity or behavior.

An extrinsic reward is an award that is tangible or physically given to you for accomplishing something. It is a tangible recognition of ones endeavor. For example, it’s a certificate of accomplishment, a trophy or medal for winning the race, a badge or points for doing something right, or even a monetary reward for doing your job. Because extrinsic rewards are tangible, they are usually given to the person doing the activity; as such, they are typically not from within the person. Therefore, extrinsic rewards means the reward is extrinsic to the performer of the activity or behavior.

An important distinction I want to emphasize. Intrinsic rewards originate from within the person. Extrinsic rewards originate from something beyond the person.

However, intrinsic and extrinsic has nothing to do with whether the motivation originates from within the person or outside the person. It means whether the motivation is intrinsic to the activity or not.

Why People are Confused about Reward vs Motivation

Here is the tricky part. Some people may be driven by rewards. Rewards can sometimes be the reason that drives people to do things. The rewards we get can sometimes be the motivation.

However, people do thing for many reasons beyond the rewards, so there are many motivations that are not rewards.

Since rewards can sometimes be a motivation, is it an intrinsic motivation or extrinsic? This is an important question and one that has confused many in the gamification industry. It is tricky!

It’s not difficult to see that doing something for the rewards is just the opposite—at least in spirit—of doing something simply for the love of doing it (i.e. intrinsic motivation). So, when an activity or behavior is motivated by rewards, it is always extrinsically motivated.

In other words, when rewards become the reason that drives someone to do some activity or behavior, they won’t be doing it purely for its own sake anymore. Therefore all rewards—both intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards—are by definition extrinsic motivations (i.e. extrinsic to the activity or behavior).


Just because we happen to use the same set of words (i.e. “intrinsic” and “extrinsic”) to describe two different concepts (i.e. rewards and motivation), it doesn’t mean those words mean the same thing. This is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that human language is simply not precise enough compared to mathematics and computer science. This is compounded by the fact that academic research tends to be very narrowly focused, and disparate disciplines often do not have enough communication with each other.

When speaking about motivation, the terms “intrinsic” or “extrinsic” means intrinsic/extrinsic with respect to the behavior—whether or not the reason for doing something is simply the love of doing that very thing. But when speaking about rewards, these same terms mean intrinsic/extrinsic with respect to the person—whether or not the reward originates from within the person doing the activity.

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Nick Thorne is the founder of Nick’s Digital Solutions Limited. He lives in Levin, New Zealand.