Extrinsic Motivation: 3 Indispensible Theories


“Invisible doesn’t mean unimportant.” Seth Godin

The three extrinsic motivational theories covered here are actually so important that psychologists (Franzoi, 2008) consider them to be both learning and motivational theories.

Some Quotes and Stories Illustrating Extrinsic Motivation

“A backwoods farmer, sitting on the steps of his tumbledown shack, was approached by a stranger who stopped for a drink of water. “How’s your wheat coming along?” asked the stranger. “Didn’t plant none.” “Really? I thought this was good wheat country.” “Afraid it wouldn’t rain.” “Oh. Well, how’s your corn crop?” “Ain’t got none,” said the farmer. “Didn’t you plant any corn, either?” “Nope. Afraid of corn blight.” “For heaven’s sake,” said the stranger. “What did you plant?” “Nothin’,” said the farmer. “I just played it safe.” The Best of Bits & Pieces, The Economics Press, Fairfield, NJ

“At Foxboro, a technical advance was desperately needed for survival in the company’s early days. Late one evening, a scientist rushed into the president’s office with a working prototype. Dumbfounded at the elegance of the solution and bemused about how to reward it, the president bent forward in his chair, rummaged through most of the drawers in his desk, found something, leaned over the desk to the scientist, and said, “Here!” In his hand was a banana, the only reward he could immediately put his hands on. From that point on, the small “gold banana” pin has been the highest accolade for scientific achievement at Foxboro.” — Tom Peter and Robert Waterman, 1982, In Search of Excellence

“The best way to change an individual’s behavior in a work setting is to change his or her manager’s behavior.” — D. W. Thompson, 1978, Managing People: Influencing Behavior

“A lead hardware engineer, a lead software engineer, and their project manager are taking a walk outdoors during their lunch break when they come upon an old brass lamp. They pick it up and dust it off. Poof–out pops a genie. “Thank you for releasing me from my lamp-prison. I can grant you 3 wishes. Since there are 3 of you I will grant one wish to each of you.” The hardware engineer thinks a moment and says, “I’d like to be sailing a yacht across the Pacific, racing before the wind, with an all-girl crew.” “It is done,” said the Genie, and poof, the hardware engineer disappears. The software engineer thinks a moment and says, “I’d like to be riding my Harley with a gang of beautiful women throughout the American Southwest.” “It is done,” said the Genie, and poof, the software engineer disappears. The project manager looks at where the other two had been standing and rubs his chin in thought. Then he tells the Genie, “I’d like those two back in the office after lunch.” Moral of the Story: It’s hard to learn something new — People are truly creatures of habit.


Learning skills is no mystery to a psychologist. But for some reason, this knowledge has not filtered into the general public. Within the world of psychology, there are two general schools of thought regarding learning skills. On the cognitive side of things, there are many theories. But on the behavioral side, there are only three theories.

Classical Conditioning. The classic and the first of the behavioral motivation to be discovered.

Operant Conditioning. If you should learn, use and practice  one theory, this is it.

Vicarious Learning. You have heard it before, “Monkey see, monkey do. Sometimes also called observational learning or modeling.

Extrinsic Motivational Theory 1: Classical Conditioning


Made famous by the Ivan Pavlov, who won the Noble prize in Medicine in 1904, this theory of skill learning explains how the mind learns to associate a stimulus and a response.

The original experiment was focused on conditioning in dogs, thus you sometimes hear people talk about “Pavlov’s dogs.” But what works on dogs, works on people. 

The theory explains why companies spend big time money on branding. It also offers one explanation for the power of advertising to influence our purchase behavior.

Unfortunately, classical conditioning impacts are often subtle, often beyond conscious awareness, so one is not aware of the stimulus-response relationship. So it’s not so well known, compared to the used and widely applied theory of learning skills known as operant conditioning.  

Extrinsic Motivational Theory 2: Operant Conditioning


Many people have contributed to this theory, the best known being Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner.

“We shall never know all the good a simple smile can do.” –Mother Teresa

There are theories, and then there is THE THEORY. Operant conditioning (often called behavioral modification) is widely used, especially in America. It’s power lies in the understanding how to use positive and negative consequences. Behavior modification is especially attractive since it’s an easy to apply and one of the easiest to learn of the learning theories.

Behavior modification works on both people and animals. You don’t have to act like a therapist who sorts out the underlying beliefs, attitudes, motives, values, etc. driving behavior. Instead, all you have to do is consider the behaviors, antecedents and consequences.

The theory says focus on a particular skill or behavior, not these ambiguous performance terms such as character, values, traits, etc. No one can fix “laziness,” “bad attitude,” or even “bad manners” if these are not grounded to a specific behavior. For example, does bad manners mean cleaning teeth with a tooth pick, coughing on the soup, or chewing food with an open mouth?

Extrinsic Motivational Theory 3: Vicarious Learning

President Barack Obama jokingly mimics U.S. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney's "not impressed" look while greeting members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in the Oval Office
President Barack Obama jokingly mimics U.S. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney’s “not impressed” look while greeting members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in the Oval Office

“Lead by Example”Common saying, United States Air Force

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

The third type of theory for learning skills is known as vicarious learning or modeling. It is sometimes called social proof (Cialdini, 1998), although some have argued that other mechanisms are at work (Bandura,1977).

The college educated typically underestimate the importance of modeling. Being raised with books, they associate learning skills with the printed works. Of course, we do learn from books. Unfortunately, book learners tend to underestimate the skill learning potential of observational learning. And so, many miss the opportunity to influence conveyed by using this technique as related by the story below.

There is a story told about a Japanese company that had taken over a facility in Poland. As the factory manager walked across the facility, he notices that people lacked pride, and would through all sorts of trash such as cigarettes on the floor. As he walked about the facility, he would pick up the trash on the floor. Pretty soon those around him did the same thing, as did others down the chain of command. Pretty soon the trash around the facility disappeared.

Human beings learn of a tremendous amount from watching and observing others. The most obvious example is young children, were a boy imitates the father and a little girl mother and imitates her mother. So the old saying, “Monkey see, monkey do,” rings true for humans.

The same process goes on in organizations. New employees don’t know exactly how act and so observe others to figure out what they need to do.This role modeling occurs at all levels of the organization. In fact, the one person most watched in all organizations is one’s boss.

Individuals possessing keen powers of observation posses an incredible advantage. They are able to see others behavior and learning skills by incorporating new behaviors into their behavioral repertoire. For example, one can model leaders by learning their persuasive and motivational skills.

“A fool never learns from their own mistakes; A average person sometimes learn from mistakes made; The exceptional learn from the mistakes of others.”– Murray Johannsen

Extrinsic Motivation Can Reduce Intrinsic Motivation

One factor complicating the picture is that there is good research that indicates external rewards can lower internal motivation (Deci, 1971, 1977, 1985). An example of this is learning.  All parents face this fundamental choice, should they, “Pay for the A.” If a child has a high desire to learn, research has shown an money will lower a child’s “love of learning.” On the other hand, if there is no internal motivation to learn, perhaps a properly desired reinforcement schedule might increase motivation.

This video by Zimbardo talks about the power of the environment to shape ordinary people to do good or bad behaviors. In other words, when really bad things happen, maybe it’s not a “few bad apples”, it’s the system that’s rotten.

Pay as on Extrinsic Motivator


If one believes what the behavioral psychologists say, one of the strongest extrinsic motivators of behavior is money.


Still, one see studies in the HR world all the time that says workers really don’t put much value on making a lot of money.


So while employee wages are stagnant, the same cannot be said about the CEOs who run large corporations.


That said, pay is not the most important thing for all people.

Clicking on this image will take you to the learning site that is called LegaceePrime.
Clicking on this image will take you to the learning site that is called LegaceePrime.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Brown, Paul (1982). Managing Behavior on the Job. New York: John Wiley and Company.

Deci, E. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press

Franzoi, Stephen (2006). Psychology: A journey of Discovery, 3 Edition, Atomic Dog Publishing.

Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. New York: The Haworth Press.

Kazdin, Alan (1989). Behavior Modification in Applied Settings, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Donaldson, L. (1980). Behavioral Supervision: Practical Ways to Change Unsatisfactory Behavior and Increase Productivity. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kopelman, R. E. (1986). Managing Productivity in Organizations: A Practical People Orientated Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mager, R. F. & Pipe, P. (1984). Analyzing Performance Problems, 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Lake Publishers.

Schwartz, B. and Lacey, H. (1982). Behaviorism, Science and Human Nature. New York: Norton.

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