Human Motivation 1. Rewards, Punishments, Compliance and Engagement

This is the first of four blog posts to explore human motivation, and how we can seek to enhance learners’ intrinsic motivation and engagement. These posts are edited extracts from our forthcoming book: Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

In this post, we introduce the concepts of motivation, rewards, punishment, compliance and engagement.

Subsequent posts introduce a framework of factors to enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement. The final post questions the use of rewards in schools and explores how teachers and students can collaborate to remove barriers to intrinsic motivation and engagement.


Let’s begin with a few operational definitions:

  • Motivation: Stimuli or drive for action.
  • Intrinsic motivation: stimuli or drive for action coming from within an individual.
  • Extrinsic motivation: stimuli or drive for action coming from sources external to the individual.

Notice that these definitions refer to the locus of control for action – the drive for action coming from within the individual, or from factors external to the individual.

intrinsic motivation stems from sources within the individual, extrinsic motivation from sources external to the individual
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation originates within an individual and stems from the inherent interest and enjoyment to be found in undertaking a task or activity. The pleasure to be derived from the activity can be sufficient motivation to do it.

Extrinsic motivation stems from something that is separate from the activity or task being undertaken. Someone goes to work at a job they dislike just to get paid; this is extrinsic motivation. Commonly the thing being sought is some form of reward, as is the case of working only for the money. People can also undertake activities in order to avoid punishment. There are very few people, for example, who find pleasure in paying their income tax bill. Most people pay taxes because they see it as an obligation and they wish to avoid additional fines and other forms of punishment!

In short, intrinsic motivation stems from sources within the individual, extrinsic motivation from sources external to the individual.

Unfortunately, in Australia and elsewhere, most attempts to improve schooling continue to focus on extrinsic motivators, most notably rewards and punishments.


Let us clarify what is meant by a reward.

  • Reward: a desired object or experience that is conferred upon an individual or group contingent upon certain criteria being met

A reward is conditional. If specific conditions are met the reward is given, if they are not met the reward is not conferred. Some refer to these as contingent rewards or ‘if-then’ rewards.

A reward may be a tangible object. Students can be rewarded with a sticker, stamp or lollipop issued by their teacher. Employees are paid for their efforts.

A reward may be a tangible experience. Parents may promise their children a trip to the movies at the weekend on the condition that they are good during the week.

A reward may also be a positive physiological or psychological experience. Pleasure can be found in the sensations that come from physical exercise. Most people experience a sense of joy from achieving challenging and meaningful goals.

Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards derive directly from meeting the criteria associated with the task itself. The act of creating a magnificent image can be intrinsically rewarding for a photographer; the criteria relate to achieving a superb image. The pleasant sensations of physical exercise derive directly from the exercise itself. Others’ responses can have an impact on the individual, but this is separate from the intrinsic reward derived from the task itself.

Extrinsic rewards are objects and experiences that are separate to meeting the criteria associated with the task. A visit to the cinema is only related to good children’s behaviour in that it is the reward on offer. Another key feature of extrinsic rewards is that they are offered by someone external to the individual being rewarded.  Implicit here is an extension of the simple ‘if-then’ notion to one of ‘if you do this, then I will do that’. This has significant implication for relationships.

In the presence of extrinsic rewards, an individual’s focus is drawn to the reward. By definition, extrinsic rewards are offered to drive individuals to take action. The desirable nature of the reward captures the attention of the individual and elicits action. The greater the reward: the greater the focus. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of using an extrinsic reward is that the focus is not so much on the task, but rather on gaining the reward.

Extrinsic rewards divert attention from the task to the reward.


Another source of extrinsic motivation is punishment.

  • Punishment: a negative or unpleasant experience that is imposed upon an individual or group in response to behaviour that is deemed to be unacceptable

Punishments, like extrinsic rewards, are conferred upon an individual or group by other individuals or groups. Some form of authority imposes punishments, be that a court of law, a government ‘official, a parent, guardian or teacher. Like extrinsic rewards, punishment is contingent on certain criteria being met. Unacceptable behaviour is nearly always the ‘criteria to be satisfied’ in order for the punishment to be imposed.

A key feature of both punishments and rewards is that they are bestowed or imposed upon the individual by other individuals or groups. This has profound implications for the nature of the relationship between the individual being punished or rewarded and those dishing out the treatment. Offering punishments and rewards reinforces dominance in the relationship.

In the classroom, extrinsic rewards and punishments are used to the detriment of learning. They take the learners’ attention away from the inherent joy and intrinsic reward from learning, and they focus attention on either obtaining the rewards and avoiding the punishments.


Consider the logical extremes of pure extrinsic and pure intrinsic motivation. While nearly all motivation is the result of a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, conisderation of the further reaches of such a continuum provides valuable insight.

At one end of the continuum is compliance.

  • Compliance: submission to the will of others

Handing your money to an armed bandit is an act of compliance. Paying a speeding fine is an act of compliance. Submitting assignments and doing homework can be acts of compliance. The key feature of compliance is that the stimuli and drive for action come from sources external to the individual; the individual is extrinsically motivated to comply. Thus, extrinsic motivation can lead to compliance.

However, individuals can also choose not to comply. They may, for whatever reason, decide that they will not submit. For the most part, this is done after careful consideration of the consequences. In this way, extrinsic motivation can also lead to defiance.

Thus, extrinsic motivation factors lead to either compliance or defiance.


At the other end of the continuum from compliance is engagement.

  • Engagement: enthusiastic commitment of attention, effort and care

The keen gardener, who spends numerous hours each week tending to the plants and flowers, demonstrates engagement. The adult who persists with a Sudoku puzzle until it is solved demonstrates engagement. Students with a love for learning also demonstrate engagement.

Engagement: enthusiastic commitment of attention, effort and care
Engagement defined

The enthusiasm to commit to a task or activity and the choice to devote care, attention and effort can only come from within. It may be possible to force compliance to complete a task or activity; it is not possible to force engagement.

The prevailing system of management

There is a wealth of evidence from research across the globe that indicates that intrinsic motivation and engagement with learning typically decline with a child’s progress through the current schooling system. It also seems that many fail to reclaim their intrinsic motivation after it has been suppressed through schooling. A large global study of nearly 11,000 workers world-wide, undertaken by Blessing White in 2011, found that fewer than one in three employees world-wide are engaged. It would seem that the diminishing engagement that teachers observe through the school years extends into work life. The obvious question stemming from the evidence of a decline in engagement over time is ‘what is causing it’?

The answer is the prevailing system of management.

The prevailing system of management across the western world is driving a loss of engagement in organisations and communities. It pays insufficient attention to the factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engages in practices that systematically deprive individuals of joy in work and learning.

This was constantly emphasised by Deming.

One is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning. These attributes are high at the beginning of life, but are gradually crushed by the forces of destruction.
W. Edwards Deming, (1993) The New Economics, p125

In the following posts in this series, we examine what we can do to turn the tide on these forces of destruction and enhance learners’ motivation and engagement.

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