Incentive Theory of Motivation

How can you motivate your friend to be the designated driver on a night out? Maybe you buy them food and non-alcoholic drinks throughout the night. 

How can you motivate a child to clean their room? You might offer them a sticker every time their room is clean. 

How can you motivate yourself to eat healthier? Maybe you hang a dress in your “ideal” size up in your closet. 

These are all very different ways to motivate people to do different things, but they have one thing in common: they are all incentives. 

Incentives seem like a common-sense way to motivate people to do something. We use incentives to motivate ourselves, our friends, our kids, our employees, or anyone. But this idea hasn’t always been so “obvious.” In fact, many trace the Incentive Theory of Motivation back to the 1940s and 1950s, but not much further beyond that!

In this video, we’re going to talk about the Incentive Theory of Motivation, how it plays into some of psychology’s most famous experiments, and how theories of motivation don’t always explain why we feel motivated to do things. 

What Is the Incentive Theory of Motivation? 

Before the Incentive Theory of Motivation, psychologists primarily focused on internal motivators. We eat food because we’re hungry. We sleep because we’re tired. Many theories focused solely on bodily functions and reaching a state of homeostasis. But that approach fails to explain a lot of choices that we make as humans. Why do we choose one career over another? How can we be convinced to do things that we don’t want to do? And if motivation is focused primarily on bodily function, does motivation only come from nature, rather than nurture? 

Psychologists in the 1940s and 1950s said “no.” Or rather, I should say behavioral psychologists during this time said “no.” During this time, a new field of psychology took center stage: behaviorism. Rather than focusing on the internal happenings of the body and mind, psychologists looked at external sources of motivation. And they found just that - that external factors can motivate people to behave in certain ways or take certain actions. 

These external factors are also known as “incentives.”

But these incentives aren’t just rewards that motivate you to perform a certain behavior. Incentives also cover punishments that discourage you from performing certain behaviors. The incentive theory of motivation suggests that rewards and punishments can motivate us in addition to intrinsic forms of motivation. 

Rewards vs. Punishments 

You can probably think of rewards and punishments that you, your parents, or even society use to motivate you to perform or abstain from certain behaviors. 

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  • You are compensated for your time at work. That compensation is a reward. 
  • You may be given a speeding ticket for failing to obey the speed limit. This is a punishment. 
  • A child is given a toy after behaving at the dentist - this is a reward. 
  • A stranger is given a $10,000 reward for finding a neighbor’s dog.  
  • A student is given detention for cursing at a teacher, or some other form of punishment depending on the school’s policies. 
  • A parent punishes a child by taking away their iPhone after they sneak out of the house.  

All of these incentives - money, toys, or iPhones - are external stimuli that can be removed or added to a situation in order to motivate behavior. Sometimes, these incentives encourage a one-time behavior. Other times, a person can be conditioned to feel motivated to behave in a certain way.  

Operant and Classical Conditioning 

Behaviorists not only believed that you could use rewards and punishments to motivate someone once - they also believed that through conditioning, you could motivate a person to want to perform a behavior over and over again. This includes the unconscious and conscious performance of behaviors. 

Take Ivan Pavlov, of the Pavlov’s dogs experiment. He was able to motivate dogs to unconsciously drool at the sound of a bell! The dogs were already motivated by an incentive - food - and unconsciously drooled when it was around. By pairing the sound of the bell with the sight of the food, the dogs were unconsciously motivated to perform the drooling behavior at the sound of the bell.

Other experiments using conscious behaviors (also known as operant conditioning) also show that we can motivate people to behave in certain ways through incentives. A child is more likely to study if they know they get ice cream every time they get an A. A person is less likely to drive under the influence of drugs if they know they will face a steep fine for doing so. People will do a lot of things for a big paycheck. 

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation 

But psychologists recognize that incentives aren’t just food, stickers, or material objects. Incentives can also come from internal sources - and this is known as intrinsic motivation. Material or external objects are therefore extrinsic motivation. 

Intrinsic motivation deals with our feelings, sense of balance, sense of control, or how we see ourselves. If you are motivated to study for a test because you feel rewarded by the knowledge that you are top of your class, you are driven by intrinsic motivation. If you are motivated to study because your parents will buy you a car for being at the top of your class, you are driven by extrinsic motivation. 

Maybe you make your bed in the morning because you feel better when you see it all made up at the end of the day - that’s intrinsic motivation. If your partner tends to get frustrated with you when you don’t make the bed, you’re facing extrinsic motivation. 

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Remember, like rewards and punishments, intrinsic and extrinsic incentives are still incentives. 

Does This Theory Work?

You can probably think of a few instances when incentives motivated you or another person. You can also probably think of a few instances when those same incentives failed to move someone else to complete the same task. So does the Incentive Theory of Motivation “work?” Yes and no. 

While all of the “main” theories of motivation explain why we do some things, there is no one theory of motivation that can provide a formula for motivating every single person. The power of incentives is different for everyone. What one person might be motivated to do for $5 will be very different from what another person might be motivated to do for that same amount of compensation. A sticker may motivate a child when they are five years old, but that same sticker is unlikely to motivate them at 15. The motivation to smoke a cigarette varies depending on how much you crave nicotine or whether you have another incentive for quitting. 

How powerful are incentives? The answer depends on you. You can change the power of an incentive by looking at it differently. A fancy sports car may motivate you one day, but changing your mindset and focusing on immaterial rewards and punishments may change the way that you look at that sports car. So it’s hard to gauge just how powerful certain incentives can be. 

What’s important to take away from this video is that through the Incentive Theory of Motivation, psychologists began to look at the power of rewards and punishments and how they play into motivation. Motivation was no longer something that only nature could influence - a person’s environment could also motivate their behavior. And while this may make motivation more complicated, that’s the reality of psychology and human behavior: it’s complicated!


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