Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

(photo from www.ceoflow.com)

As I was watching the TV show, The Bachelor tonight- I know, not the best show on television but after a long day, it's nice to turn something on the television that doesn't require you to think or concentrate and of course I fast forward most of the drama, but it's still pretty entertaining and funny at times-I ran across a statement one of the contestants made that had me cringing.

I was watching all of the girls flirt and try to win the bachelor's affection for a rose when one of the finalists attempted to call her 5 year old daughter back home. The mom was very emotional talking to her little girl as she had not seen her in a few weeks and told her she saw a recent picture of her in her cheerleader outfit and proclaimed,  'You were the prettiest cheerleader there!" Cringe.

First, what are 5 year olds cheerleading about?

Secondly, this poor mom is already starting this little girl off to be competitive with her other cheer leading friends and I can just see her on her way to the next Toddler and Tiara's episode.

There is nothing wrong with telling our children they are pretty.  I tell my baby she is beautiful every day. But we have to balance it out here and there. We have to make sure our children are intrinsically motivated more than extrinsically. What does that mean? Well, let me give you the definition of both.

Intrinsic motivation means that someone is motivated from the inside. Much like we tell children "it's more important what's on the inside than on the outside." A good goal is to make sure our youth want to excel in school because they have a drive and desire to do well, not because it will please their mom or dad. We want our child to make a soccer goal because they are good at their skills and want to do well for the team, not because they will get a reward afterwords.

Extrinsic motivation is when a person is motivated to do something by something on the 'outside'. As an adult that is motivated extrinsically, they choose to drive a luxury car, own nice clothes and a 4 carat ring because they want to look good in front of others and win their approval. Or a girl who wears more make-up because she wants people to notice her. Will she grow up learning that looks is how to succeed in life?

An adult who keeps their yard maintained because they want to make sure it stays green, and enjoys gardening is intrinsically motivated vs an adult who hires a landscaper to make sure their yard is the best looking in the neighborhood.

In play therapy, counselors attempt to teach children to be more intrinsically motivated by telling them "how pleased they must be with themselves" when they finish an art project vs "I love how pretty your picture is." We don't want them to paint a picture so we will "love" it. We want them to accomplish something because they did something themselves. Make sense?

We also want to make sure we are not constantly telling a child "I am so proud of you" because hearing that over and over can also increase extrinsic motivation. The goal is not for them to learn to succeed to make their parents happy, but that they are proud of themselves. As an alternative, you can say, "You must be so proud of yourself."

So yes, I will continue to compliment my daughter here and there extrinsically, but will attempt as much as possible to make an effort to make sure she is more intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation increases a child's self esteem, boosts their confidence and teaches them about life, and the old saying "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."

So what should the Bachelor contestant have told her daughter? She could have said, "I saw the picture you sent in your cheer leading outfit! You must be so proud of yourself working so hard at being a cheerleader. You look like you are having so much fun." and if needed she could have added, "And you looked so cute in your outfit too! I can't wait to see you!" See? Mostly intrinsic and a little extrinsic comment at the end.


  1. [...] Praise is telling your child how wonderful they are, how amazing, fantastic and job well done. Praise is when you tell your kids, “I am so proud of you!’ or “Good girl!” They are usually words that evaluate something such as: good, beautiful, fantastic, athletic, etc. It is also more of an extrinsic motivator where a child feels the need to please others to get rewarded and praised, see my previous post about this here. [...]

  2. You actually make it appear really easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something that I feel I might never understand. It sort of feels too complex and extremely broad for me. I am taking a look forward in your next publish, I?ll try to get the hang of it!

  3. It is a hard concept, but basically just keep in mind to try to have your child be motivated from within and not constantly trying to please others. It helps with self esteem. If we only feel good about ourselves based on what other people think or say, then children can develop a low self esteem and have a hard time getting through school and growing into adults. So instead of telling them every time they do something good that 'I am so proud of you' to vary it and say 'you must be so proud of yourself' instead (not every time but here and there). That makes it so they are motivated on their own to do well and not just to constantly please others ;) Hope that helps...