The Motivation Cannibalism: How Extrinsic Motivation Kills Intrinsic Motivation

My friend is a college student majoring in Entrepreneurship. The curriculum challenges him to have a profitable business by the end of the course.

Before he started the course, he feels super-motivated. He loves the challenge and set a goal by himself. He wanted to create a business that is profitable yet also impactful to the society.

He even has the plan to join some business plan competition later. He already active to join a competition since the first semester.

In the first day of the class, the lecturer tells him this,
“To get an A in this course, you have to get Rp. 10.000.000 profit by the end of the semester and you also have to win one of the competitions in a business plan. Otherwise, you will not get an A.”

He thinks, “Whoa, what if my business is not that profitable yet and I want to focus on developing it instead of joining the competition?”

Suddenly, he feels forced to do it, the joy of joining the competition by himself is gone.

He started questioning his own plan. Eventually, his confidence and motivation are fading away.

In this case, the lecturer is not wrong. He only wanted to motivate his students to win a competition by creating a reward and punishment system.

But unfortunately, the result is counterproductive. Instead of getting more motivated, my friend feels extremely demotivated.

Actually, my friend is not the only victim of this case. You may too.

How could it happen?

Extrinsic Motivation Kills Intrinsic Motivation


Extrinsic motivation: What drives behavior from outside an activity—for example, rewards or punishments.

Intrinsic motivation: What drives behavior from within the activity itself. Something you do “for the fun of it.”

Well in the case above, the lecturer had applied an extrinsic motivational factor to an act that was previously driven purely by intrinsic motivation.

One killed the other. Specifically, extrinsic killed intrinsic.

His lecturer took the fun out of joining business plan competition for my friend.

According to Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci Research in behavioral pattern, it goes like this:

“… virtually every type of expected tangible reward made contingent on task performance does, in fact, undermine intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, not only tangible rewards, but also threats (Deci & Cascio, 1972), deadlines (Amabile, DeJong, & Lepper, 1976), directives (Koestner, Ryan, Bernieri, & Holt, 1984), and competition pressure (Reeve & Deci, 1996) diminish intrinsic motivation because, according to CET [cognitive evaluation theory], people experience them as controllers of their behavior.”

To make it simple, it goes like this:
When an activity that was previously fun for you was turned into work, your sense of obligation and your voluntary commitment to the task had the unintended side effect of killing your enjoyment of joining a competition altogether.

What Should You Do Then?

1. Do Not Mix The Motivation

This is powerful and dangerous stuff. It’s not obvious how one type of motivation can actually cancel out another.

This is a reminder of the value of a deep understanding of the people you give motivation, but more importantly, the need to account for the effect of the particular mix-motivational drivers you choose to put into effect.

In this case, the lecturer should have spent more time determining if the value of joining the competition could have been internalized more effectively.

It may not have been possible to make the students join a competition as an intrinsically motivated act, but it might have been possible for him to do a much better job of getting the students to actively WANT to join it.

For example, rather than keep forcing all the students to join the competition by making it as a requirement to get an A, the lecturer could focus on the students that are already motivated to join a competition and give them a mentoring session.

At least, it doesn’t kill the motivated students’ motivation to join the competition.

2. Discover Your Intrinsic Motivation

Imagine a building. If it’s not built with a foundation, even a slight wind could make it collapsed. But when it has a solid foundation using a great material, it will survive a hurricane.

If your intrinsic motivation is stronger than the extrinsic motivation, you won’t easily getting distracted by anything.

Although it needs some process to create an intrinsic motivation, it will become a foundation of your action.

Ask yourself, “Why should I do it?”

If you have a good reason, makes it as your main motivation and focus on that.

3. Disciplined Your Mind

Even when you have a strong foundation, it doesn’t mean that you are invincible from a storm. The storm will strike you immediately. That’s just how the world works.

Thus, you need to have a maintenance in a certain period of time. Because when a problem occurs, you will be ready.

In the previous article, I have talked about disciplining your mind by writing your vision every day. The other example of this is to train yourself to always have daily reflection session. I will get into that in the next article!

4. Only Use Extrinsic Motivation When You Need It

Although extrinsic motivation has some disadvantages for you, it doesn’t mean that it have no advantage at all.

You can use an extrinsic motivation when you have no intrinsic motivation to the task. You have one thing that you have to do but you never like to do it right?

It could be a homework of a course that you don’t like, a revision from a client, an unnecessary task from your boss, or anything.

You can promise yourself to buy an ice cream after you did the work. Or have a nice massage session. Whatever works for you as a reward.

Because you have no motivation before, you will be fine and get motivated by the rewards.


Every motivation has its own purpose. We can use intrinsic motivation to get more productive on things that we loved. Also, we can use extrinsic motivation to get work done on the things we don’t like. But, the thing is they do not work better together.

Extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation. When an activity that was previously fun for you was turned into work by giving it a reward or punishment, your sense of obligation and your voluntary commitment to the task had the unintended side effect of killing your enjoyment altogether.

Thus, you need to discover your intrinsic motivation, disciplined your mind, and believe that only you knows the best for yourself. Remember this, the best motivator in the world is YOU!


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