Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation…a false dichotomy?

I had a fascinating “debate” of sorts with some of my Twitter colleagues two weeks ago. We were discussing the recent article, Freakonomics Goes to School and Teaches Us the Right Way to Bribe Kids, that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly on June 19. Wow! Having a debate where each comment is limited to 140 characters is challenging, to say the least! The best part of the conversation was that we all have the same goal…what’s in the best interest of kids…and we all were able to be respectful toward each other.

Now, I kind of think that article title is just red meat, but having been blogging for a while now, I can appreciate a provocative title that generates traffic.  And this one sure did. The article described some recent work conducted by Steven D. Levitt (of Freakonomics fame), John A. List, Susanne Neckermann, and Sally Sadoff.  They conducted a study in which kids earned money for their performance on standardized tests. That’s not the interesting part, though. What was interesting is that the kids’ performance improvements were affected by the timing of the money delivery and the amount (or magnitude) of the money given.  Suffice it to say that this set off a maelstrom of activity, primarily debating whether or not the use of rewards/reinforcers/bribes (pick your term) in the classroom is “right” or “wrong.” To me, it’s unfortunate that the discussion went in that direction, because it completely missed the point of the research and the potential value therein. But I could have predicted it based on such a virulent title.

That said, all of this led to the Twitter discussion with my tweeting buddies about intrinsic and extrinsic, which led into a discussion about the Skinnerian (or behavioral/behavior analytic) approach to using reinforcers to change behavior.  I’ve been working on this blog post ever since…want to make sure I get it right!

I learned some interesting things from that discussion. One was that there are still a lot of misconceptions out there about what behavior analysts believe and practice. Another is that some people think that B.F. Skinner‘s practices are now obsolete.  In the words of one of my colleagues, “We now know better.” And finally, it seems that there is a general belief among those who strive for “intrinsic motivation” that behavior analysts advocate ongoing and perhaps even exclusive use of “extrinsic motivation” and don’t believe in “intrinsic motivation.”

So this is kind of a long blog post, I know, but I want to try to add some clarity. First, I want to try to define the terms intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation for purposes of this discussion, and let’s just use a classroom example.  Can we all agree that “intrinsic motivation” = a student completes an action or activity for which there is no obvious reward/external consequence; they are presumed to do the task for the enjoyment of the task itself?  And “extrinsic motivation” = a student completes an action or activity that is followed by some kind of reward/external consequence/praise, etc.?

I’m going to pretend that you all have said “Yes, that sounds good to me!”

So now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Behavior Analysts don’t generally think of events in a bimodal distribution like “intrinsic” vs. “extrinsic.”  I had to really spend a lot of time thinking about the stuff I’m going to say next.  I might not even get it right the first time, but that’s the beauty of blogs…we can hash it out in the discussion or I can even write another post.  But here it goes…

As Behavior Analysts, we focus on what’s functional.  What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Most likely, we’re trying to change behavior in some capacity. What is the consequence that will get a behavior established and what is the consequence that is most likely to maintain that behavior over the long term?  The ultimate goal is to achieve maintenance, and a “natural” consequence is best.  A natural consequence is one that occurs automatically when a behavior is performed.  For example, when I make a phone call, I get to talk to my friend (natural consequence of placing the call).  When I open the door to go outside, I get to play with my friends in the pool.  When I read a book, I get to find out what happens next in the story.  When I master one level of Angry Birds, the next level get unlocked and I can keep playing.

Natural consequences are great.  In some cases, we can even use natural consequences to teach new skills.  If we’re teaching a skill like making a phone call or opening a door, we could use a backward chaining procedure, and once the learner completes the required step(s), he or she would talk to a friend on the phone or get to join friends outside.  Sounds simple enough, right?  And it’s the fastest and most sustainable approach.  We can use the same natural consequence to teach the skill that will ultimately maintain the skill in the real world.

But sometimes the skill we’re trying to teach is too complex for that.  Take reading as an example.  The natural consequence for reading a novel is to find out what happens (the possibility of needing to write a book report notwithstanding!).  But there is no backward chaining procedure for reading.  Reading is a composite skill made up of many, many component skills, whose instruction is order-dependent.  For example, decoding must be taught before comprehension.  I can’t comprehend text if I can’t decode the words in the passage.  And there is no “natural” consequence for “decoding behavior” when it’s first being taught.  As the student gets better at decoding, “getting it right” can be a natural consequence, but in those initial stages students need feedback and perhaps a sticker, perhaps some praise, to keep them moving in the right direction.  And that’s okay.  Once we get to the point where they have contacted the natural consequence, getting it right, we don’t need stickers, praise, etc., and they should be faded out.  No one is advocating going around and continuing to praise, give stickers, etc., once the skill has been established.  That would just be annoying, not reinforcing!

Whew.  That was a lot.  So I’ve tried to explain the Behavior Analytic perspective to using consequences and teaching.  Now let me see if I can summarize my objections to the Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic debate:

1. The debate oversimplifies the reality of teaching new skills, particularly complex ones.  Most situations need a combination of “arranged” and “natural” consequences.  The art (and science) is in moving from one to the other.

2. Just because there are people out there who use “arranged” consequences (i.e., “extrinsic motivation”) badly, that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water.  I was once at a school where the teacher was teaching a kid to open the door by giving him a token each time he did it correctly.  Predictably, the kid got up, opened the door, left it ajar and returned to his desk to get his token.  Ridiculous??  Of course!!!!  And I’m the first one to say so.  But that doesn’t mean that arranged consequences are “bad” and shouldn’t be used when necessary.  It just means that some people don’t know what they’re doing!  And what field doesn’t have some of that??

3.  Not being “intrinsically motivated” to do something can mask a skill deficit.  In general, most of us prefer to do things that we’re good at.  (This, of course, begs the question of why I continue to play golf, but that’s another story.)  The point is, there are some things kids aren’t going to like to do until they have strengthened their skills in that area.  Put another way, a learner may not have the skills necessary to access the natural consequence and you might need to bridge the gap with arranged consequences to build those skills.  So just be aware of that and dig deeper when a kid doesn’t like doing something.

I’m not sure if that’s all I have to say or if I’m just tuckered out from trying to figure out a way to explain where I’m coming from.  But hopefully you guys will tell me what you think.  At the end of the day, I do think “intrinsic vs. extrinsic” is a false dichotomy.  I think it would be more productive to think of consequences falling along a continuum.  We need to jump onto that continuum at whatever point is appropriate for the immediate problem we’re trying to solve and move toward the natural consequences as the goal.

Now chime in!

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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47 Responses to Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation…a false dichotomy?

  1. Gord Holden says:

    Hi Karen. Great post. So glad to see that you appreciate that many throw the baby out with the bath when the subject of behaviour modification comes up. So many get stuck on the idea that “Skinnerism” is about primary reinforcers such as “treats.” There is so much more to it than this. Personally, I think it can often be useful to marry concepts that work in order to gain deeper insights. For instance, when you marry Skinner and Maslow, one can immediately see that intrinsic motivations can be met by extrinsic reinforcements that can be both quite profound and very sophisticated. These reinforcers are of course ubiquitous and constant as a part of the human experience. Why we would ignore this, or leave the obvious power of this to gaming companies and Wall Street executives is beyond me. The only consideration that I would like to add is that we could/should be able to design reinforcements that appeal to the higher level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Motivating students should not be about food, comfort, or sex (at least not in the immediacy of the classroom), but about building community and self-confidence to name just a couple. This begs the question…is this what we see in the current model of education? Thanks Karen for raising the issue. I expect many others will have valuable insights to share.

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for your comment, Gord. I think you really hit the nail on the head when you talk about consequences being ubiquitous. People seem to lose sight of the fact that contingencies and consequences are acting on our behavior all the time, whether we like it or not. And I agree that as educators, we should use it. As you mention, the gaming people (not to mention the marketing and advertising people!) have this down!

      • Gord Holden says:

        And thanks for your kind affirmation. My apologies, but I cannot recall if you’ve seen my Ning. Here you will find the work of many educators who have adopted the cultural language of learning accepted by the majority of 21st century students. They’ve taken this highly visual and experiential model and modified and imbued it with opportunities for students to level up through concrete factoids into the critical questions they will need to deal with in real life. This “Purposeful Play” (as I call it) is of course not at all new, just evolved from throwing sticks and feeding dolls into practicing the much more elaborate roles contemporary students much prepare for.

        Is this about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? Of course. Perhaps entirely. Which is what makes it such a power methodology for learning. Don’t get me going on that though. I have much too much to say on this subject. : )

        • karen mahon says:

          Thanks, Gord. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that before you mentioned it I hadn’t even heard of Ning! But I will definitely check it out!! And feel free to “get going!” That what the discussion part of a blog is for!

  2. Yoshe Melton says:

    I’m gonna try and keep this short and to the point,(which I am terrible at BTW)

    Basically I agree that with most if not all that you had to say. very well thought you. I would like to expand on the digging deeper idea of finding why a child is not learning something as well as, or even will to learn some skill, or component of that skill. This is far over looked in my opinion in the teaching profession. there is a reason behind every behavior. and if clearly a child exhibits a negative connotation towards a specific skill or component of skill building, there IS a reason for it, Often times a deficiency in another area that might not be immediately recognizable as a connection to said skill.

    Nurturing a learning fundamental from an area where a student is uncomfortable with, requires extrinsic motivation. if I didn’t like oatmeal, it tastes horrible, bland, and the texture makes my mouth feel horrible. I’m not gonna eat it, but If I add a little cinnamon, some all-spice, raisins and a little honey. It tastes better, I can swallow it. and over time learn to like it. and I might not need the honey or raisins later. then again I might still want it, and because I get no honey from any other source, its good to have it somewhere.

    as teachers should be more than just teachers but nurturers, emotional support, social examples for a growing, mentally evolving student. I feel it vital to do everything in our power to empower students. even if that empowerment might at first be built on extrinsic motivation. Teachers should take the time to learn their students and find what works for each student,

    I know that the world is not perfect and that classrooms are over populated and there is not enough time in the day to reach out to 30+ students each in kind. but to me, THAT more than anything is what is wrong with scholasticism, unfortunately!

    To conclude my long winded response, I agree that in many cases extrinsic motivation if a viable learning tool, because it also promotes intrinsic behavior. and I think they work hand in hand actually

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for your support, Yoshe. It is so true that we need to individualize our approaches with each student, to the extent that it is possible. And I think that the transition from arranged to natural consequences can play itself out differently for individual kids as well. It’s very effortful for teachers, but necessary, nonetheless!

  3. Missy says:

    Love the oatmeal example Yoshe, going to steal it for class. Also, I think you also might be a behavior analyst, no wonder I like you 😉

  4. Gord Holden says:

    Well, for me to “get going” one must first know what I’m talking about. Clicking on this link is a start.

    When I speak to classes of teachers-in-training, I ask how many have been in a virtual world. I’m lucky to get 10% with their hands up. Unfortunately (as I tell them), this is where 90% of the students they are going to be teaching spend time each day. Or fortunately.

    In such an environment, students can become wolves fighting for survival in Yellowstone, a biologist attempting to save a river, an archaeologist studying artifacts from a mysterious island culture, or an historian that goes back in time to live with and learn from the Anasaz people about their culture. They can become an astrophysicist and/or astronauts attempting to save Earth from an NEO, or a journalist attempting to discover the truth behind some ethical dilemma. They can rebuild ancient civilizations, or build new ones. My students have done all these things and so much more. What’s more, they can and do repeat all these “tasks” repeatedly until they have mastered them. Why? Because this is how THEY engage in learning.

    I did a presentation a ISTE last week in San Diego and outlined that the first step to a successful learning is to “follow the child.” It was affirming to hear the keynote speaker Dr. Yong Zhao Trim concur. A cruise to Hawaii may be the cruise of choice for a generation of teachers, but if their students are flying to Thailand, the connection between them will be tenuous. Want to connect with students? Be where you can engage them. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) is such a place.

    I was hired a year ago by Christian Heritage Online School in Canada to make this a mainstream approach for them, eliminating the physical, cultural, and academic gap between staff and their 8000+ students. Already the school is growing in numbers and we are needing to hire new staff. We do not hire them unless they agree to training in VLEs, and preferably have “tweens” at home to assist them.

    I’d be willing to organize a tour for administrators who have “la ganas” to tear down the walls and adopt some engaging contemporary approaches to schooling. Serious inquiries only though. I am a very busy guy. : )

    • karen mahon says:

      This sounds really interesting, Gord, and I would certainly be interested in joining a virtual tour. I think the VLEs are fascinating. I have found myself in disagreement with Yong Zhao Trim on several occasions, but I’d like to learn more about what you’re working on. Anyone else want to join?

  5. Mair says:

    I really love how well thought-out and articulate your distinction is. I also agree that the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation is a false dichotomy. In my experience working with school teams, particularly regarding schoolwide systems of positive behavior support, this issue came up constantly. Many educators were against using any means to support behavior change other than “intrinsic motivation” also known as “the students should do it because it’s the right thing to do!”

    Of course, natural consequences, as well as those considered intrinsic, are critically important to long-term maintenance of newly acquired behaviors. I’ve found that what many people fail to realize is that if behaviors exist, there must already be a reinforcer in place that is maintaining that “undesirable” behavior. In other words, the student is more motivated to misbehave, than to behave (to put it in simplistic terms). Given this reality, you might catch one or two students (this is NOT empirical, just conjecture) and convince them to do the right thing because its the right thing to do with a lecture, but likely most others will continue accessing reinforcement, whether extrinsic or intrinsic, via the method that has been giving them the payoff.

    There is a long list of behaviors in which we should engage because they are the “right thing to do.” I’ll name only a few for the sake of my point:
    Exercise regularly
    Eat a healthy diet
    Treat others respectfully
    We should want to engage in these behaviors, right?. We should be intrinsically motivated because we KNOW that these behaviors will give us some measure of health and good quality of life. And yet…

    This is not a simple subject that you’ve chosen to tackle.I’m glad that you did it anyway!

    • Gord Holden says:

      Your comments reminded me of a staff meeting years ago where we were told too many students under-performing, because they were not completing their work. Many suggestions were made around extending the school day, lunch-time study blocks, etc., etc. When I was asked for my solution I suggested that we simply needed to stop rewarding students for not doing their homework. Their were many looks of disbelief that I would say such a thing, but when challenged I asked them what students did in place of homework. Generally speaking, the consensus was that they were out with their friends having a good time. I suggested that when we made getting work done more fun than not getting work done, things would change. It took a year for the laughter to die down, but when nothing else worked, they started to have special events for students who had a demonstrated record of work completion. Those who hadn’t completed their work didn’t get to go swimming, skating, to a movie, to a beach party etc. Guess what happened? Extrinsic, intrinsic, I’m not sure that it mattered, students learned that good work habits opened up doors of opportunity. Hmmm…a bad thing?

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, Mair. I’m not sure I’m changing any minds here, but writing this really helped clarify my own thinking, at least!

  6. Gord Holden says:

    Yes, it usually takes a year or so for colleagues to see any sense at all in my observations and/or comments. I think the trick is to get them to think that it was their idea. But I’m just not that clever I’m afraid. Always more to learn. : )

  7. Great post Karen! I too engage in this discussion on a regular basis, frustrated that any mention of tangible/social reinforcers (referred to as extrinsic motivation) is seen as “ruining kids’ intrinsic motivation”. One is not better than the other and they are not on opposite end of a reinforcement spectrum (if one existed). I also try to make example of how many of our behaviours result in something tangible or “extrinsic”, if you will. I go to the grocery store because I come out with food that I need, not because I “love to go grocery shopping”. If the grocery store failed to provide me with food, I would stop going. I go to the dentist to get a cleaning and avoid possible cavities (negative reinforcement) not because I’m intrinsically motivated to be there (which I’m most certainly not) – does that make the experience “ruined”? And finally, I love my job and am driven to make significant behaviour change, see results in the learners I work with; but, if you stop paying me, I will stop working.

    In the end, what people cite as “reinforcement/rewards/bribes don’t work” is often one of a few things: 1) the “reward” wasn’t a reinforcer to begin with; 2) the schedule of reinforcement was too thin; 3) failure to prompt; therefore, the learner made mistakes (i.e., skill did not meet up with reinforcer – either the naturally occurring one or an in-the-meantime tangible/social reinforcer); 4) the behaviour is being punished by something else in the physical/social environment. This is why we need behaviour ANALYSIS and not just behaviour modification tricks!

    • karen mahon says:

      All great points, Tricia-Lee! Thanks for such a thoughtful reply. And you most certainly point out something that I failed to articulate in my original post…there are indeed so many “extrinsic” reinforcers for things all of us do every day that are, in fact, critical to us doing those things. And I agree, the event is certainly not philosophically “diminished” by the fact that we’re not doing it for the sheer love of doing it!

      So for me this begs the question…what are we all arguing about when it comes to using these consequences in education? If we all agree that what we really want to engender is a love of learning and curiosity in our kids, then what’s the problem? The only thing I can see is that there are some well-known people out there making a LOT of money perpetuating this mythology. Ah…lots of money…an extrinsic motivator?? 🙂

      • I think it comes down to what Skinner referred to in ‘Beyond Freedom & Dignity’ – that people like to think of themselves as in control of their own behaviour, as if we posses a mental or internal mechanism that explains why we do what we do. People do not like to think of themselves as being controlled by their environment and this has extended into the classroom. Even the word “control” is viewed negatively. In this view, adults are bad (or dare we say even “evil”) for re-arranging and “manipulating” the situation to get what we want. Sure, behavioural techniques could be misused for fraudulent, illegal, unethical, immoral outcomes, but it can be used for making positive changes to people’s behaviours. Not until a person accepts that the environment exerts some control over our behaviour – and that’s okay, we’re still human – will behaviour change technologies be welcomed.

        • karen mahon says:

          Agreed. I used to think that people felt like they had “free will” when they were working to earn something, and felt they were controlled when they were working to avoid something. But now I see that’s not true. And I don’t expect to settle the free will debate here! Lol!

  8. Denise Mamaril says:

    Karen, thanks for the really well thought out discussion. As probably the only non-behavioral analyst reading this (or, at least, responding to it), I obviously come to this discussion armed with a different set of tools. For me, the first place I really hit the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators was at business school, where it was discussed in terms of how to best create motivation systems for knowledge work companies. The research there showed that monetary rewards for behavior tended to focus the workers not on the creativity required for their knowledge work but rather on the most efficient way to work the system to get the money. The more focuses they became on money, the worse their work product became. Reward systems that were more closely aligned with the work at hand (for example, letting teams design their own workspaces or, like Google, giving every worker one day to work on a project of their own creation) led to higher quality work product. But, obviously, designing your own workspace isn’t actually an intrinsic motivator–it’s just more closely aligned with the work than cash. So I wonder if intrinsic and extrinsic are actually just a continuum of motivators, with one end being closest to the natural consequence of the task at hand and the other being farther away.

    When I read that article about the research you mentioned, the thing that struck me is that there are all kinds of extrinsic motivators acting on inner city kids to not do well on standardized tests. (This opinion is informed by my own experience of going to DC public schools.) In many inner city environments, doing well in school and spending time trying to do well is punished by many of your peers. Spending time denigrating academic performance is rewarded with positive feedback from many of your peers. So providing an offsetting reward that is unlikely to receive negative feedback from your peers (“I only did it to get the money”) makes it possible for kids to improve their performance without the negative peer feedback. While this won’t lead to self-sustaining performance in every student, there are a few that may find academic success rewarding in and of itself, something they never would have done if they hadn’t been provided the opportunity to experience it through the cash reward.

    That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for the opportunity to do some real thinking in the middle of my day.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Denise- I think you raise an excellent point in discussing competing sources of reinforcement. I think educators are often trying to counteract other existing reinforcers in a student’s home or community. And I think the idea of giving students the opportunity to earn money for schoolwork and the corresponding “I only did it for the money” reason for peers is REALLY interesting. This idea definitely requires a more sophisticated contingency analysis than most teachers have time or experience to do. But how amazing would it be if teachers were taught to do that kind of contingency analysis in their teacher prep programs?

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  10. Really interesting post and discussion.

    This is a deep subject, but I’ll try to keep it brief by focusing on one big point.

    If I have it right, here’s the main point you were making in your post: “I do think ‘intrinsic vs. extrinsic’ is a false dichotomy. I think it would be more productive to think of consequences falling along a continuum.”

    I can see how this is plausible if you look at behavior. But if it were truly a continuum, that would seem to suggest that there should be one underlying mechanism for all kinds of motivation. The brain research suggests, though, that there are different mechanisms involved in different types of motivation, and these different mechanisms have important implications for learning.

    First think about money (or gold stars for little kids). These kinds of extrinsic rewards have a kind of steady magnetic pull, for example: “We’ll give you this money if you do your homework.” In other words, we can think of the extrinsic incentive (money) as effectively raising the person’s background level of motivation from the time it becomes available until the task is complete and the reward is received.

    Compare that to an intrinsic reward, like novelty. Novelty is rewarding even though there’s no external object like money that the person is pursuing. (Yes, novelty can sometimes be frightening, but let’s focus on the rewarding kind here). Money is money, and it’s rewarding because it’s money. It might drive behavior that leads to learning, but its reinforcing value isn’t *modulated* by learning. The reinforcing value of novelty, in contrast, changes with learning. By definition, something is novel when it’s new-when a person has not experienced (or learned about) it previously. Once it’s been experienced-and learned-it’s not novel any more, and it stops being rewarding. In short, novelty is a kind of intrinsic reward that regulates learning in a nuanced way. Extrinsic rewards like money don’t regulate learning in the same way.

    I agree with you that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, when used skillfully, can both be powerful tools for learning design. I don’t think they can be used interchangeably, though, because they involve different brain mechanisms that influence and interact with learning differently.

    (Cross-posted at

    • Here’s some interesting research (a controlled experiment) on the functional difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation specifically applied to educational games…

      From the abstract: “The results showed that children learned more from the intrinsic version of the game under fixed time limits and spent 7 times longer playing it in free-time situations. Together, these studies offer evidence for the genuine value of an intrinsic approach for creating effective educational games.”

      Research article abstract and reference page:

      Research article:

      Click to access Habgood_Ainsworth_final.pdf

      • karen mahon says:

        Whew! I’m digging through that article, but it’s 39 pages long!! I skipped the intro entirely and I’m just trying to read the methods section. Here’s my initial reaction: there are many differences in the two experimental conditions, so I admit I am already skeptical.

        It’s hard for me to tease apart the differences in the conditions that might contribute differentially to the performance outcomes being different. I have to read the section again more carefully, but in my first read it seemed that information was presented differently and at different times to the learner. Why is this a concern? Because it means that the consequence was not the only factor that was different.

        So I need a few more days to read and re-read and probably draw the different conditions. I’m glad you sent this, Mike, thanks. It’s great to be able to discuss a real example with real data and not just the principles in the abstract. You know that now I’m going to be looking for an example that supports my case to send to you too!


        • Mair says:

          Here is a meta-analysis of some of the intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation studies, published in 2001. I have read this one several times, though not in the last year. You may be interested in taking a look.

        • Yes, the researchers were investigating a theory of “intrinsic integration,” which makes the methods more complex than simply changing the types of reinforcers used. They also changed the way game content was or was not integrated with the core game mechanics and narrative context. I can see how this makes it difficult to do a straightforward comparison of the reinforcer schedule.

    • karen mahon says:

      Mike, thanks for all of that. I can certainly believe that fMRIs or other types of scans show different areas of the brain “lit up” when different kinds of events occur. But for behavior analysts, that doesn’t add anything to our account of the reinforcement process. The “regulation” or “modulation” of learning that you refer to isn’t part of our account because for us, it doesn’t add anything to our ability to describe (and oftentimes, predict) the behavioral phenomena.

      We behavior analysts agree that different events affect behavior in different ways, but for any given event (e.g., delivery of something novel, delivery of a gold star, etc.) its effectiveness on changing behavior must be determined empirically by collecting data. So the distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” isn’t inherently useful to us. In your comments here, you mention that the reinforcing value of novelty changes with learning; I suggest that the reinforcing value of money can also change. The designation of “intrinsic” versus “extrinsic” does not determine that.

      What I typically find in discussions like these is that you and I would be able to agree almost totally on methodological issues when conducting research. We would probably take data on the same behavioral responses and environmental events. I would even find it interesting to collect data on brain activity. I think the primary difference in our orientations, and please correct me if you disagree, is that your explanations of the behavioral phenomena suggest that cognitive constructs are causal, which is something of which behavior analysis would stop short.

      • Hi, Karen.
        Thanks for your thoughtful responses. A few points…

        1) You said: “I can certainly believe that fMRIs or other types of scans show different areas of the brain “lit up” when different kinds of events occur. But for behavior analysts, that doesn’t add anything to our account of the reinforcement process.”

        I am not sure if I said something that gave you the impression that I was drawing heavily on neuroimaging studies like fMRI? I’m actually not. I’m drawing on sources from computational neuroscience, wet neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and functional neuroscience that seek to model causal brain structures and mechanisms – ‘how’ the brain carries processes out, not ‘where’ (which is we get from fMRI and PET, for instance) or ‘when’ (which we get from EEG and MEG, for example). I’m not suggesting that different kinds of rewards or reinforcement processes light up different parts of the brain – I’m suggesting that two observable phenomena both of which are called “motivation” are actually caused by distinct underlying mechanisms, regardless of where in the brain they are implemented. As an analogy, I’m saying that I think putting two qualitatively different types of motivation on a continuum would be like putting whales and minnows on a continuum because people think of them both as “fish” based on their similar surface features. The fact that one is actually a mammal and the other is a fish, though, certainly does add to our account of the observable behavior patterns–for example, it explains why (and predicts that) whales come to the surface and blow water but minnows don’t, and would allow us to both explain and predict the behavior of porpoises if they were discovered tomorrow.

        I’m very curious if you have a different way of framing this.

        2) You said: “I think the primary difference in our orientations, and please correct me if you disagree, is that your explanations of the behavioral phenomena suggest that cognitive constructs are causal, which is something of which behavior analysis would stop short.”

        I do disagree. 😉

        I think the primary difference in our orientations is that my explanations of the behavioral phenomena suggest that biological *neural* structures and processes are causal – and in fact should be considered part of behavior, even though they are not observable to the naked eye.

        3) You said: “The “regulation” or “modulation” of learning that you refer to isn’t part of our account because for us, it doesn’t add anything to our ability to describe (and oftentimes, predict) the behavioral phenomena.”

        Hmmm…I guess I would say here that there is no observable behavior without some underlying neural cause, and the neural description has many dimensions (and/or variables) that are not recoverable from the observable behavioral data alone, because observable behavior is necessarily a much lower-dimensional phenomenon (order of magnitude estimates would be 10^14 degrees of freedom in the brain – the number of synapses – compared to 10^2 or 10^3 effective degrees of freedom for observable behavior, taking into account the degrees of freedom of all the joints, plus eye movement, pupil dilation, heart rate, galvanic skin response, etc. The latter is my estimate and I’d be interested to know if behaviorists use a different number.)

        > “it doesn’t add anything to our ability to describe (and oftentimes, predict) the behavioral phenomena.”

        This is the crux of the issue, I think. I disagree with this statement if I understand you correctly, but I am not sure if I do understand your intended meaning.

        (And for the moment, let’s set aside the “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” labels because I think that issue is tangential to what we are talking about right now.)

        Going back to the comparison between money and novelty as examples of incentives / reinforcers, I want to try to make the example as simple as possible. (This will make for a very contrived example, but bear with me. 😉 Let’s assume for the moment that:
        a) Both money and novelty have exactly the same value as a reinforcer
        b) The reinforcing value of money and novelty is fixed for all time

        Under these assumptions, consider two scenarios:
        1) We offer a child a monetary incentive to do their math homework
        By assumption, the incentive value of money never changes, and so we should be able to do this every night with the same motivational result – they do their homework.


        2) Instead of offering money we wrap the homework in a novel “skin” involving dinosaurs (which the child has never encountered before)
        The incentive value of novelty never changes. But the novelty value of dinosaurs does change. Once the child has seen the dinosaurs enough times, they cease being novel. And so we can’t use the dinosaurs every night with the same motivational result (though we can reliably use bugs or fish or aliens or something else the child has never seen before on each subsequent night).

        The point is that the money is a first-order reinforcer, in the sense that it depends only on the value the person associates with the money. Novelty, in contrast, is a second-order reinforcer in that it depends on a relationship between a stimulus (e.g., dinosaurs) and something (dinosaurs, again) previously stored (or not stored) in memory, plus the value the person associations with novelty (the difference between the previous two variables). This novelty mechanism is neural (not cognitive), it’s undeniably causal, and it’s not observable without additional probing. If a kid walks up to you in our simplified world, for instance, and you do some behavioral experiments to determine the reinforcing value of a given amount of money to do his homework, then you can predict behavior on subsequent nights quite well without additional experiments. If a kid walks up to you and you do some experiments to determine the reinforcing value of dinosaurs, you can predict behavior on the first night (maybe-unless the experiment itself affected the novelty value of dinosaurs), and you could even predict the reinforcing value of dinosaurs on subsequent nights (it would go to zero). So you can predict the reinforcing value of novelty, but you can’t predict the reinforcing value of any particular stimulus set. You would have to run additional experiments to figure out what novel item to use on each night.

        From a practical standpoint, if someone is trying to teach another person math and they have successfully used both money and dinosaurs successfully to motivate them in the past, knowing that money is a first-order reinforcer and dinosaurs (considered strictly in terms of novelty value) are a second-order reinforcer should actually add to their account, their explanation, their prediction, and their decision, shouldn’t it?

        The question regarding the idea of a continuum of motivation is:
        Are we talking about little vs. big fish or are we talking about minnows vs. whales?

        • After sleeping on it, I don’t think the brain research is necessary to make my point here (though the brain research has been for me the source of the key insights). In fact, the source of the insights (brain or behavior) is a red herring. We should be able to put the argument into purely behavioral terms.

          Going back to your original proposal, Karen:
          “I think it would be more productive to think of consequences falling along a continuum.”

          To summarize and reframe what I said in the previous post, I expect that if you looked at the behavioral data on using money vs. novelty as a reinforcer you would find that they have very different reinforcing effects over time. Money (in our simplified thought-experiment) has a constant reinforcing value whereas any given stimulus set that depends on novelty (e.g., dinosaurs) has a reinforcing value that decays over time (though novelty itself has a constant reinforcing value just like money in the world of the thought experiment).

          In a nutshell, here’s my argument:
          P1: If different types of reinforcers have different temporal dynamics, then we cannot place them all on a single continuum
          P2: Different types of reinforcers (e.g., money vs. novelty) have different temporal dynamics (note this should be visible in the behavioral data, and so we can leave the brain out of it)

          Conclusion: We cannot productively think of consequences as falling along a continuum.

          NB: I’m not interested in defending one theoretical paradigm over another. I’m interested in trying to reconcile our two perspectives one way or the other. I think there is a direct contradiction here (as I’ve tried to highlight in this post) and I don’t assume I’m right. If we can collaboratively resolve it either way I’d be equally happy!

          • karen mahon says:

            Before getting to your points, let me clarify that when I said that consequences fall along a continuum, I only meant in terms of structure, not in terms of function. If an event doesn’t serve to establish and/or maintain behavior then it doesn’t belong on the continuum at all. The utility of the continuum is not for the scientist; it is for the practitioner. It is a construct that suggests a model for moving from “stickers” and “cookies” toward “achievement” and “getting it right” being the consequences that serve to reinforce the behavior.

            The value of any reinforcer changes over time depending on many things, including competing sources of reinforcement, satiety, deprivation, etc. etc. If a consequence stops being effective in maintaining behavior, it’s not a reinforcer anymore. But the changing value, if you will, doesn’t make it a completely separate behavioral phenomenon.

            I think I’m out of steam. Chew on this and see if we’re any closer to resolution! 🙂

          • A person says:

            just wondering (kinda late I know, there’s probably no one here except crickets), but wouldn’t Kahneman & Tversky’s prospect theory suggest that the motivating power of money/gold stars also diminishes? This could get to a point where the perceived loss is greater then the perceived gain, and so actually ceases to be motivating at all.

            • karen mahon says:

              Thanks for commenting! I’m still here!!

              I don’t know the research you’re referring to, but generally I would say that there is almost nothing (except, perhaps, money) that is going to be forever reinforcing (i.e., motivating). Preferences change; people become satiated on reinforcers, etc. So it’s not surprising that motivational value, if you will, changes over time. What is surprising to me is that some people think that this diminishes the value of using reinforcers. When to me, it just means that you need to switch to another reinforcer.

        • karen mahon says:

          Hi Mike-

          This is a lot to think through and respond to, but let me give it a shot. We might be going round and round…

          1. You didn’t say anything in particular that made me think you were referencing fMRI; I just used it as an example. Apologies for using an improper example for your point. And I definitely agree that the environment “inside the skin” impacts behavior. But as far as the neurology adding more to the account of the reinforcement process, I don’t think the whale vs. minnow comparison holds. (Let’s leave aside for the moment that breathing is unconditioned.) The physiology of a whale may account for why access to air is a reinforcing consequence (i.e., survival value), but why something is reinforcing and the fact that it is can be considered separately. In the case of the whale, I don’t need to know anything about its physiology in order to accurately describe, predict and impact its “blowing air” behavior, if you will. The same holds true for the minnow. I don’t need to know what its underlying physiology is in order to discuss the “what” accurately. So my point is not that neurology and physiology don’t impact behavior or even that “something different” may or may not be occurring inside the whale vs. minnow brain. My point is just that I don’t need to know what that “something different” is in order to do my job. If you know it fine; if you don’t know it, also fine. Let’s say we discover a whale-lie animal and you hypothesize that because it has a similar physiology to the whale it will also need to come to the surface to breathe, etc. But at the end of the day you still need to take the data. I think in your case the data will either confirm or disconfirm your hypothesis; it’s more top-down. In my case, I’m just more bottom-up. The data ARE the hypothesis, in a manner of speaking.

          2. We would have to dig into this further, but as I said above, I agree that inside the skin is part of the environment. Whether or not there is causality or correlation is where the devil is in the details, isn’t it? And I guess in my practice, that doesn’t really matter much because whether a brain issue causes a behavioral excess or deficit, or whether it’s just correlated, I still have to figure out a way to intervene on the behavior directly. And typically, when we intervene on behavior directly, we don’t have access to what is going on in the brain. This isn’t to say that I don’t think that part is interesting; it’s just to say that I can successfully change behavior at scale without knowing.

          3. Regarding your numbers about degrees of freedom, etc., we don’t use those metrics, so I’m in no position to agree or disagree with your estimates.

          Regarding the experiment, bear with me, because your terminology has me off my footing. Let me try restating and please check my logic.

          Let’s say that in this scenario the learner is doing math word problems.

          Condition 1: The student earns $1 for every completed math worksheet; the word problems are always about manufacturing widgets.
          Condition 2: Every day the math sheet is decorated differently and uses different scenarios for the word problems. There is no arranged consequence for finishing worksheets. (Does Condition 2 meet your novelty requirement?)

          So the experimental question is how many worksheets will a student complete without any additional intervention?

          I suppose if it were possible to hold the value of money and novelty, in this example, constant and equal AND students showed better performance in Condition 2, then we might be able to discuss the novelty here being more effective than the money. But to be honest, I don’t really know, because your whole paradigm is so much different than mine. Let me clarify: For us, money is a conditioned reinforcer. It has no value in and of itself; its value is in what it can be used to access, so the value of money has to be taught. That’s almost irrelevant, though, because at the end of the day whether or not something is a reinforcer or not is empirically derived, based on whether or not its presentation increases the behavior it follows.

          When you say “Novelty, in contrast, is a second-order reinforcer in that it depends on a relationship between a stimulus (e.g., dinosaurs) and something (dinosaurs, again) previously stored (or not stored) in memory, plus the value the person associations with novelty (the difference between the previous two variables). This novelty mechanism is neural (not cognitive), it’s undeniably causal, and it’s not observable without additional probing,” that is where you lose me. And the reason you lose me is because I don’t know how to treat “a stimulus stored in memory” or “the value a person associates…”.

          THAT said, I imagine that we could agree on an operational definition of novelty as it pertains to an experimental manipulation. And if we could, then we could conduct a parametric study examining the relative effectiveness of money as a consequence vs novelty as a consequence. I just don’t think they did that successfully in the article you originally referenced.

          So whether we’re talking minnows, whales, external, internal, brain, behavior, or whatever, where it ends up with me is that the experimental design needs to be clean and the data need to be clear. When all is said and done, I’m just a functionalist.

          • Michael Connell says:

            Hi, Karen.
            Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I feel like I have a bit better understanding of your perspective now. I think we would need to spend some time level-setting on terminology, etc. to continue this particular conversation, and that is better done face to face.

            I look forward to future posts!

  11. Tim M. says:

    This may be just the group to ask a question. I am an administrator at a trade school and have to conduct a two-hour Professional Development workshop in April for my instructors on the topic of Grading System Design. I was planning to go beyond the typcial discussion of grading system design, since most of the participants have systems in place already, and look at the purpose of the grading system and the idea that a well-crafted grading system might also serve as a motivational tool, in addition to assessing comprehension of material. So, as I watched Daniel Pink on TED talks, which refered to the value of intrinsic motivation and its’ preferance in ‘higher -order’ thinking and problem-solving, I was lead to this blogs’ discussion/dabate of the nature of ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ thinking as a possible ‘false dichotomy.’ Very interesting.
    So my question is this, do any of you have an ideas of possible components of a grading system that could also serve as a motivator of adult learners?
    The workshop will be part of my “Mechanics of Effective Teaching” series, and is currently dubbed “Motivational Assessment Strategies.”
    Your thoughts, and/or any referances, would be appreciated as I construct this concept and plan ways to convey it simply to my teaching staff.

  12. Christina Slaten says:

    Cameron and Pierce have reviewed the literature regarding the effects of extrinsic reinforcement on intrinsic motivation. It presents a solid argument on how reinforcement will increase rates of behavior as well as time-on-task and preferrence for that activity . It is well worth reading.
    Cameron, J., & Pierce, W.D. (2002). Rewards and intrinsic motivation: Resolving the controversy. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

    • karen mahon says:

      Christina, one of my favorite articles of all times….thanks for posting it! Also, if you look above, Mair posted the Cameron, Ryan and Pierce meta-analysis.

      Sent from my iPhone

  13. Another late follow-up… This book is now available, and provides some relevant criticism of the research done on “intrinsic vs extrinsic” motivation (including lack of precise definitions):

    Some blog posts by the author:

  14. Hi, just wanted to say, I liked this article. It was helpful. Keep on posting!

  15. Pingback: What is Self-Motivation, Anyway? | disrupt learning!

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  17. Pingback: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation | Exploring Education

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