Extrinsic Motivation: 3 Must Know Theories To Use

“Invisible doesn’t mean unimportant” — Seth Godin


Learning new behaviors is no mystery to a psychologist. But for some reason, this knowledge has not filtered into the general public. In the public sphere, you are blessed with articles like, “How to Motivate your Employees in 12 Easy Steps,” and “15 Effective Ways to Motivate Your Team

Within the world of psychology, there are two general schools of thought regarding the learning of behaviors. On the cognitive side of things, there are many theories. But in the behavioral school, there are only three theories.

The three extrinsic motivational theories covered here are actually so important that psychologists (Franzoi, 2008) consider them to be both learning and motivational theories.

By Murray Johannsen. Feel free to connect via LinkedIn or directly from this website.

Wish To Better Motivate Performance in Work Settings?

Behavior modification works on both people and animals. You don’t have to act like a therapist who sorts out the underlying beliefs, attitudes, motives, values, etc. driving behavior. Instead, all you have to do is consider the behaviors, antecedents, and consequences.

The engine which drives performance is motivation. It is the key to unlocking productivity gains, sparking quality improvements, generating continuous profits, and insuring customer service.

diagram of the major techniques of behavior modification (operant conditioning)
Over 4,000 studies have documented how to use this theory of performance management—half of them performed on animals. Also known as behavior modification, the course teaches you you have to use both antecedents and consequences to change behavior.

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Stories Illustrating Extrinsic Motivation

“A backwoods farmer, sitting on the steps of his tumbledown shack, was approached by a stranger who stopped for a drink of water. “How’s your wheat coming along?” asked the stranger. “Didn’t plant none.” “Really? I thought this was good wheat country.” “Afraid it wouldn’t rain.” “Oh. Well, how’s your corn crop?” “Ain’t got none,” said the farmer. “Didn’t you plant any corn, either?” “Nope. Afraid of corn blight.” “For heaven’s sake,” said the stranger. “What did you plant?” “Nothin’,” said the farmer. “I just played it safe.” The Best of Bits & Pieces, The Economics Press, Fairfield, NJ

“At Foxboro, a technical advance was desperately needed for survival in the company’s early days. Late one evening, a scientist rushed into the president’s office with a working prototype. Dumbfounded at the elegance of the solution and bemused about how to reward it, the president bent forward in his chair, rummaged through most of the drawers in his desk, found something, leaned over the desk to the scientist, and said, “Here!” In his hand was a banana, the only reward he could immediately put his hands on. From that point on, the small “gold banana” pin has been the highest accolade for scientific achievement at Foxboro.” — Tom Peter and Robert Waterman, 1982, In Search of Excellence

“The best way to change an individual’s behavior in a work setting is to change his or her manager’s behavior.” — D. W. Thompson, 1978, Managing People: Influencing Behavior

“A lead hardware engineer, a lead software engineer, and their project manager are taking a walk outdoors during their lunch break when they come upon an old brass lamp. They pick it up and dust it off. Poof–out pops a genie. “Thank you for releasing me from my lamp-prison. I can grant you 3 wishes. Since there are 3 of you I will grant one wish to each of you.” The hardware engineer thinks a moment and says, “I’d like to be sailing a yacht across the Pacific, racing before the wind, with an all-girl crew.” “It is done,” said the Genie, and poof, the hardware engineer disappears. The software engineer thinks a moment and says, “I’d like to be riding my Harley with a gang of beautiful women throughout the American Southwest.” “It is done,” said the Genie, and poof, the software engineer disappears. The project manager looks at where the other two had been standing and rubs his chin in thought. Then he tells the Genie, “I’d like those two back in the office after lunch.” Moral of the Story: It’s hard to learn something new — People are truly creatures of habit.

Three Behavioral Theories of Motivation

Theory 1: Classical Conditioning

An illustration of the conditioning elements associated with Classical Conditioning. The classic and the first of the behavioral motivation to be discovered.

Made famous by Ivan Pavlov, who won the Noble Prize in Medicine in 1904, this theory of skill learning explains how the mind learns to associate a stimulus and a response.

The original experiment was focused on conditioning in dogs, thus you sometimes hear people talk about “Pavlov’s dogs.” But what works on dogs, works on people. 

The theory explains why companies spend big-time money on branding. It also offers one explanation for the power of advertising to influence our purchase behavior.

Unfortunately, classical conditioning impacts are often subtle, often beyond conscious awareness, so one is not aware of the stimulus-response relationship. So it’s not so well known, compared to the used and widely applied theory of learning skills known as operant conditioning.  

Theory 2: Operant Conditioning

“We shall never know all the good a simple smile can do.” –Mother Teresa

Operant Conditioning. If you should learn, use and practice one theory, this is it. It explains so much of what we see in the real world.

Many people have contributed to this theory, the best known being Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner.

There are theories, and then there is THE THEORY. Operant conditioning (often called behavioral modification) is widely used, especially in America. Its power lies in understanding how to use positive and negative consequences. Behavior modification is especially attractive since it’s easy to apply and one of the easiest to learn of the learning theories.

The theory says to focus on a particular skill or behavior, not these ambiguous performance terms such as character, values, traits, etc. No one can fix “laziness,” “bad attitude,” or even “bad manners” if these are not grounded to a specific behavior. For example, do bad manners mean cleaning teeth with a toothpick, coughing on the soup, or chewing food with an open mouth?

The theory says to focus on a particular skill or behavior, not these ambiguous performance terms such as character, values, traits, etc. No one can fix “laziness,” “bad attitude,” or even “bad manners” if these are not grounded to a specific behavior. For example, do bad manners mean cleaning teeth with a toothpick, coughing on the soup, or chewing food with an open mouth?

Theory 3: Model (Vicarious Learning)

“A fool never learns from their own mistakes; A average person sometimes learns from mistakes made; The exceptional learn from the mistakes of others.”– Murray Johannsen

This has long been known in Western psychology and goes by different names. One commonly used term is vicarious learning or more commonly modeling. It is one of the three types of behavioral learning theories, the other two being classical conditioning and the other one being operant conditioning.

“Lead by Example”Common saying, United States Air Force

When it comes from learning leadership from movies, modeling becomes an essential element of understanding how to understand what we are seeing. If one watches a movie from start to finish, one learns very little. Sure, you are entertained, and you watch away saying, “Wow, awesome movie.” But it is less likely that we can or will ask ourselves what we can apply or what lessons learned there are.

Modeling also plays its role in learning leadershipundefineda big role. Prior to learning leadership by hearing a lecture and writing a paper, the young would learn through the life example or their elders or the teaching stories told by the wise.

Of course, if you are lucky you might be able to role model a leader in your life. But few of us have the good fortune to have a great leader at a beck and call, But, we have if the universe of the truly greats waiting for us on the screen. But to learn, we cannot watch a leadership movie that same way we watch television for if we do, we learn nothing.

If you think about it, we begin modeling our parents when we are very, very young. It’s easy to see little girls imitating their mothers. The playing with dolls and the care of the house. In fact, it’s often thought values are installed by the age if six. And it’s not just the words that we hear, it must be the example that underlies the words that make the difference  

President Barack Obama jokingly mimics U.S. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney's "not impressed" look while greeting members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in the Oval Office
Vicarious Learning. You have heard it before, “Monkey see, monkey do. Sometimes also called observational learning or modeling. President Barack Obama jokingly mimics U.S. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney’s “not impressed” look while greeting members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in the Oval Office

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Becket

The third type of theory for learning skills is known as vicarious learning or modeling. It is sometimes called social proof (Cialdini, 1998), although some have argued that other mechanisms are at work (Bandura,1977).

The college-educated typically underestimate the importance of modeling. Being raised with books, they associate learning skills with the printed works. Of course, we do learn from books. Unfortunately, book learners tend to underestimate the skill learning potential of observational learning. And so, many miss the opportunity to influence conveyed by using this technique as related by the story below.

There is a story told about a Japanese company that had taken over a facility in Poland. As the factory manager walked across the facility, he notices that people lacked pride, and would through all sorts of trash such as cigarettes on the floor. As he walked about the facility, he would pick up the trash on the floor. Pretty soon those around him did the same thing, as did others down the chain of command. Pretty soon the trash around the facility disappeared.

Human beings learn a tremendous amount from watching and observing others. The most obvious example is young children, where a boy imitates the father and a little girl mother and imitates her mother. So the old saying, “Monkey see, monkey do,” rings true for humans.

The same process goes on in organizations. New employees don’t know exactly how to act and so observe others figure out what they need to do. This role modeling occurs at all levels of the organization. In fact, the one person most-watched in all organizations is one’s boss.

Individuals possessing keen powers of observation possess an incredible advantage. They can see others’ behavior and learning skills by incorporating new behaviors into their behavioral repertoire. For example, one can model leaders by learning their persuasive and motivational skills.

4 Quotes on Pay as a Motivator


If one believes what the behavioral psychologists say, one of the strongest extrinsic motivators of behavior is money.


Still, one sees studies in the HR world all the time that says workers really don’t put much value on making a lot of money.


So while employee wages are stagnant, the same cannot be said about the CEOs who run large corporations.


That said, pay is not the most important thing for all people.

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Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Brown, Paul (1982). Managing Behavior on the Job. New York: John Wiley and Company.

Franzoi, Stephen (2006). Psychology: A Journey of Discovery, 3 Edition, Atomic Dog Publishing.

Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. New York: The Haworth Press.

Kazdin, Alan (1989). Behavior Modification in Applied Settings, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Donaldson, L. (1980). Behavioral Supervision: Practical Ways to Change Unsatisfactory Behavior and Increase Productivity. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kopelman, R. E. (1986). Managing Productivity in Organizations: A Practical People Orientated Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mager, R. F. & Pipe, P. (1984). Analyzing Performance Problems, 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Lake Publishers.

Schwartz, B. and Lacey, H. (1982). Behaviorism, Science and Human Nature. New York: Norton.

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Last Updated: October 14, 2023

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