Do Educators Exaggerate the Harm of Extrinsic Motivation?

10.15.2020 ,

By Dr. Jacques Benninga, Director of the Bonner Center for Character and Civic Education at California State University, Fresno

I have been following’s 11 Principles of Character since they were first developed.  These principles serve as guideposts for schools and youth programs in planning and sustaining their character education programs.

One of the 11 Principles, however, has caused me pause and reflection because the guidance provided for its implementation seems too one-sided and inconsistent with available research. Principle 7, “the school fosters students’ self-motivation,” is aspirational. Aspirations are attained over time. The 11 Principles of Character Framework advocates intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation as the pedagogic strategy to achieve this principle. We read in its text that students should be kind, “because of an inner belief that kindness is good,” and we want them to do good work “because they take pride in quality work, not just because they want a good grade.” Such intrinsic aspirations for our students are certainly hopeful but not generally consistent with principles of developmental science, and not based on a full interpretation of scholarly research. We might wish students were inherently motivated by “respect for the rights and need of others,” but the path to adult moral maturity proposed by Principle 7 does not reflect what we know about the progression of children’s and adolescents’ moral development.

Character educators warn against using extrinsic incentives to promote desired behavior, seemingly concerned that any such rewards might reduce student intrinsic motivations. Rather, they advocate empowering children to take responsibility for, and reflect on, the effects of their own actions, and to set goals for themselves. Teachers are encouraged to set high expectations for student achievement and to provide more interesting curricula to motivate, rather than extort, student involvement. These are worthy practices, and I share them, but the reasoning about their implementation is disconnected from another set of principles, those having to do with what we know about the development of children’s and adolescents’ moral and social thinking, the core foundations for character actualization.

Here’s where I’m going with this. Piaget, Kohlberg, and other developmental experts describe the years prior to adulthood as much more self-concerned than the proponents of intrinsic-only strategies might lead us to believe.  Children aren’t made self-centered by extrinsic reinforcements, they’re just that way at that time. Based on well-established research, developmental psychologists describe children how they are, not as we’d like them to be. For K-1 children, moral thinking is based on unilateral respect for authorities and following their rules. For these 5-7 year olds, justice is defined as respectful obedience to the authority. Clearly, young children’s moral thinking is determined by external factors. Elementary school children tend toward a morality that rules should be followed when are in their own immediate interest, especially when they can get “a good deal” or some sort of equal exchange in the process (Snarey & Samuelson, 2008). Rewards work for them and teachers know it. Even adolescents and college students can’t be trusted to “do the right thing when no one is looking.” Laurence Steinberg, a prominent adolescent psychologist, warns that 18-22 year olds tend to be “responsive to the potential rewards of risky choice[s],” have trouble exercising self-control, and are likely to take more risks when with their peers. According to Steinberg, the years 20-24 are the peak in risk-taking in virtually every country. People of this age, he says, “…are especially drawn to short-term rewards”(Steinberg, 2020). Seemingly, at each level from early childhood to early adulthood, students’ natural developmental inclinations are to respond to extrinsic stimuli. It’s hard to get around those developmental milestones and characteristics.  Developing children and adolescents are resistant to immediate change because of their lack of maturity. Exposure to good environments and positive experiences may enhance moral thinking, but the process is slow. It’s development.

So, where does that bring us as we think about student self-motivation? Some research frequently used to support the efficacy of intrinsic motivation found that extrinsic motivations negatively impacted intrinsic motivation to learn. But other research has come to very different conclusions (see Theodotou, 2014 for a succinct review of this research). The answer to the question of extrinsic-intrinsic motivation is not as clear to me as it’s made out in the 11 Principles of Character. Educators and parents intuitively know that offering incentives to children to engage in activities that may not initially appeal to them is often effective in getting them involved and can positively influence subsequent behaviors. Such experiences are consistent with the research on children’s moral thinking over time.

Extrinsic motivations are often effective, efficient, and produce positive results. Our own research supports this conclusion. In a direct comparison of children’s social development over a four-year period between an elementary school using an extensive program of extrinsic motivations versus a set of schools in another district focused on developing an internalized commitment to values and norms, the outcomes on children’s social development in fifth grade were not significantly different (Benninga et al, 1991). A well-planned program of extrinsic motivations did not negatively impact the social development of its students. Quite the opposite. Both programs had positive effects.

If schools are truly student-oriented, if teachers explain to and discuss with students the rationale for rules and procedures, and allow for a level playing field of opportunity there is no pedagogical reason to shy away from using extrinsic motivational strategies to advance both academic achievement and character development.




Benninga, J.S.; Tracz, S.M.; Sparks, R.K.; Solomon, D.; Battistich, V.; Delucci, K.L.; Sandoval, R.; & Stanley, B.(1991). Effects of two contrasting school task and incentive structures on children’s social development. The Elementary School Journal, 92(2), 149-167.

Snarey, J. & Samuelson, P. (2008). Moral education in the cognitive developmental tradition: Lawrence Kohlberg's revolutionary ideas. In Nucci, L. & Narvaez, D. (Eds.), Handbook of Moral and Character Education, pp. 53-79. New York: Routledge.

Steinberg, L. (2020). Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Re-open Is a Fantasy.

Theodotou, E. (2014). Early years education: Are young students intrinsically or extrinsically motivated towards school activities? A discussion about the effects of rewards on young children’s learning. Research in Teacher Education, 4(1), 17-21.