Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic: Can You Have The Best of Both Worlds?

“There’s a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea and there’s a time to fear its hold over us. The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it. When objections are not even raised we are not in control. We do not have the idea… it has us.”1

At a recent presentation, my colleague and co-author, Dr. Rosie Ward, was discussing the three decades of consistent scientific research confirming the complete lack of efficacy of incentives (extrinsic motivation) for sustained behavior change. The literature also is quite clear that, aside from failing to produce long-term behavior change, extrinsic motivation more often than not:

  • Diminishes performance and creativity,
  • Fosters short-term thinking,
  • Encourages cheating and lying,
  • Becomes habit forming — and perhaps most importantly for the workplace —
  • Reduces or extinguishes intrinsic motivation.2

During the question-and-answer session, one of the participants stood and said:

“Suppose you have a worksite where the culture is wonderful. People feel trusted and valued by management. Autonomy is supported, and employees are given opportunities for mastery (training and resources to improve their skills) and most have a sense of purpose in their work above it being just a job. Can’t an outcomes-based wellness incentive program (i.e., “wellness or else”) work and avoid the pitfalls usually associated with their use?

At first, I thought (I was sitting in the audience) — OMG more stuckness to an outdated, scientifically disproved paradigm. But then I paused and realized this was actually just an affirmation of the power of paradigms as Dr. Thomas Kuhn writes in his landmark work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:”

“the proponents of different paradigms… see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction… what cannot even be demonstrated to one group of scientists may seem intuitively obvious to another”3

I thought if I could help this person better understand the problem then I might be able to help others as well. However, Rosie redirected this person back to the old paradigm and questioned why a company would feel the need to apply 17th century tactics to try to control employees if the culture really was as great as this person thought; yet he remained firm in his assertion that outcomes-based incentives can work in such a culture.

For almost two decades, I have been trying to help health professionals to shake off the shackles of Skinner’s box. Yet despite all of the research, abandoning old established paradigms is just plain hard. I have to remind myself that in spite of the fact that Galileo invented the telescope and provided evidence to prove that the earth revolved around the sun, he was still placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. This got me thinking of a true and powerful story that might help with the stuckness regarding incentives.

Dumping the Incentive

In the early 1990s, Switzerland conducted a national referendum to determine the “best” locations for disposing of its nuclear waste. Bruno Frey and Felix Oberholzer-Gee, two social scientists, went door-to-door, asking people whether they would be willing to have a waste dump in their community. Not surprisingly, people generally expressed considerable concern that such a dump would be potentially dangerous and would lower their property values. In spite of this, and astonishing as it may seem, 50% of respondents said yes! The dumps had to go somewhere, and like it or not, these people believed their obligations as citizens outweighed their personal fears.

Frey and Oberholzer-Gee then asked the question in a slightly different way. This time, they offered people an incentive (annual payment equivalent to six-weeks’ worth of an average Swiss salary) in exchange for agreeing to have the dump in their communities. Perhaps surprisingly, adding the financial incentive actually cut acceptance in half — that’s right, when offered financial incentives, only 25% of respondents agreed!

According to Frey and Oberholzer-Gee, people who were not offered incentives had to decide whether their responsibilities as citizens outweighed their distaste for having nuclear waste dumped in their backyards. Some thought yes, and others, no. When they were offered incentives, however, they had to decide if they should make a decision based on being a good citizen or as a self-interested individual? While willing to take the risks based on wanting to be good citizens, many people concluded that six-weeks’ pay wasn’t enough, and that perhaps no amount of money was enough, when considering their self-interest first! The offer of money undermined the moral force of people’s obligations as citizens.

Dr. Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, summarized the lessons to be learned from this: (http://www.bargaineering.com/articles/incentives-demoralizes-professional-activity.html)

“Thinking of ’smart’ incentives as magic bullets is virtually guaranteed to demoralize activities, and practitioners, and eventually, whole practices. Incentives are meant to be a substitute for having people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing. They aren’t.”

There was no coercion here. This was not like a “wellness or else” program where people are coerced, rewarded, and/or punished depending on whether they are willing to jump through some preordained health hoops. There was no “do this or else.” Everything was done in good faith, and the folks had the freedom to make a choice. And yet, the consequences of using incentives were the same. The incentives did what incentives do — irrespective of intent and what they are used for, what 30 years and hundreds of studies have consistently demonstrated, and what no study has ever shown otherwise. Incentives change the conversation from whatever it may be to a simple transaction. Do incentives “work?” As Alfie Kohn writes in his seminal work Punished by Rewards: The answer to that question is:

If your objective is to get people to obey an order, show up on time and do what they are told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if your objective is to get long term quality in the work place, to help students become more careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless.1

If a company actually has a thriving workplace culture such as the one this audience member described, it would be highly unlikely that incentives would even be considered anyway because the culture would be so much more likely to be intrinsically rather than extrinsically focused. But… The bottom line here is that, regardless of how incentives are implemented — naughty or nice, choice or no choice, to promote participation, behavior change or health outcomes — the consequences of using incentives are always the same.

Is there a better way to go about facilitating change in an organization? Absolutely! – a 21st-century, evidence-based, proven way to support people’s and organization’s efforts to change and grow. We cover this in great detail in our new book: “How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work,” available in paperback and kindle versions at Amazon.

Can you have the best of both worlds? The research is not the least bit ambiguous. For the overwhelming majority of the kinds of changes we are seeking at the worksite for both employees and organizations, the best thing we can do is avoid the extrinsic and focus on the intrinsic.


  1. Kohn, A. “Punished by Rewards.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
  1. Pink, D. “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates us.” New York: Riverhead Books, 2009. Kohn, “Punished.”
  1. Kuhn, T. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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