How does cognitive evaluation theory explain intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

August 6, 2023

The cognitive evaluation theory offers a fascinating perspective on understanding intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This theory explores how different types of rewards or feedback influence an individual’s level of motivation and performance. Intrinsic motivation refers to internal drives and enjoyment derived from engaging in an activity, while extrinsic motivation involves external incentives such as rewards or punishments. The cognitive evaluation theory provides valuable insights into how these two forms of motivation are influenced and how they affect one’s behavior and performance.

Understanding Motivation: A Complex Puzzle

Motivation is a driving force that influences our behavior and actions. It is a multifaceted concept that has been studied by psychologists for decades, resulting in various theories and perspectives. One such theory is the Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET), which delves into the intricate relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Exploring Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in an activity for the sheer joy and satisfaction it brings. It is the internal desire to pursue a task or goal based on personal interest, curiosity, or a sense of accomplishment. Intrinsic motivation is often associated with creativity, enjoyment, and a deep sense of fulfillment.

The Role of Cognitive Evaluation Theory

Cognitive Evaluation Theory, proposed by Deci and Ryan in 1985, seeks to explain the factors that influence intrinsic motivation. According to this theory, the extent to which individuals experience intrinsic motivation is influenced by the presence or absence of three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy: The Need for Control

Autonomy refers to the need for individuals to have a sense of control and volition over their actions. When individuals feel that they have the freedom to make choices and decisions, it enhances their intrinsic motivation. Conversely, when autonomy is restricted or taken away, intrinsic motivation tends to diminish.

Competence: The Need for Mastery

Competence refers to the need for individuals to feel capable and proficient in their pursuits. When individuals perceive that they are competent in a particular activity, their intrinsic motivation is strengthened. On the other hand, if individuals feel incompetent or perceive a lack of progress, their intrinsic motivation may dwindle.

Relatedness: The Need for Connection

Relatedness refers to the need for individuals to feel a sense of belonging and connection with others. When individuals have supportive relationships and social interactions that foster a sense of connection, their intrinsic motivation is heightened. Conversely, if individuals feel isolated or lack social support, their intrinsic motivation may suffer.

The Impact of Extrinsic Factors

While intrinsic motivation is driven by internal factors, extrinsic motivation stems from external rewards, such as money, praise, or recognition. Cognitive Evaluation Theory suggests that certain extrinsic factors can either enhance or undermine intrinsic motivation, depending on how they are perceived.

Controlling Extrinsic Factors: The Undermining Effect

When extrinsic rewards are perceived as controlling or manipulative, they can undermine intrinsic motivation. For example, if a person feels that they are only engaging in an activity to receive a reward or avoid punishment, their intrinsic motivation may decrease. This is known as the “overjustification effect,” where the external reward becomes the primary motivator, overshadowing the inherent enjoyment of the activity itself.

Informational Extrinsic Factors: The Enhancing Effect

However, not all extrinsic factors have a detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation. Cognitive Evaluation Theory proposes that certain types of extrinsic rewards can actually enhance intrinsic motivation. These are known as informational extrinsic factors, which provide individuals with valuable feedback and a sense of competence or autonomy.

The Power of Feedback and Competence

When extrinsic rewards are perceived as informative and supportive, they can promote a sense of competence and autonomy, thus increasing intrinsic motivation. For example, receiving positive feedback on a project can boost an individual’s confidence and desire to continue engaging in that activity. Similarly, rewards that provide individuals with meaningful information or choices can enhance intrinsic motivation by satisfying their need for autonomy and competence.

The Interplay of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

While intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are often viewed as separate entities, Cognitive Evaluation Theory highlights their interdependence. It suggests that extrinsic motivation can either support or hinder intrinsic motivation, depending on the type of extrinsic factor and how it is perceived by individuals.

Creating an Optimal Motivational Environment

Understanding the principles of Cognitive Evaluation Theory can help individuals and organizations create an optimal motivational environment. By fostering autonomy, competence, and relatedness, intrinsic motivation can be nurtured and sustained. Furthermore, being mindful of the impact of extrinsic factors and ensuring they are perceived as informational rather than controlling can enhance intrinsic motivation.

In conclusion, Cognitive Evaluation Theory provides valuable insights into the complex relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. By understanding the role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, individuals and organizations can cultivate an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation and supports the pursuit of meaningful goals. By embracing the principles of this theory, we can unlock the full potential of human motivation and create a world where individuals are driven by their internal desires and passions.


What is cognitive evaluation theory?

Cognitive evaluation theory is a psychological framework that seeks to explain the factors that contribute to individuals’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The theory suggests that people are inherently motivated to engage in activities and behaviors that fulfill their psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal drive or desire to engage in an activity because of the inherent satisfaction, enjoyment, or personal interest it provides. It arises when individuals find the activity itself fulfilling, rewarding, or meaningful, without the need for external rewards or incentives.

How does cognitive evaluation theory explain intrinsic motivation?

According to cognitive evaluation theory, intrinsic motivation is enhanced or undermined by the presence of external factors that influence individuals’ perception of their competence and autonomy. When individuals perceive their competence to be high and feel a sense of control over their actions, their intrinsic motivation is strengthened. On the other hand, if external factors, such as excessive external rewards or controlling behaviors, are present, individuals may feel less autonomous and experience a decrease in their intrinsic motivation.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation refers to the drive or desire to engage in an activity for external reasons or rewards, such as money, praise, grades, or recognition. It is influenced by external factors that come from outside the individual and serve as incentives or consequences for engaging in a particular behavior.

How does cognitive evaluation theory explain extrinsic motivation?

Cognitive evaluation theory proposes that extrinsic motivation can have different effects on individuals’ overall motivation, depending on the type of external factor involved. The theory suggests that external factors that provide informational feedback, promote perceived competence, or offer a sense of choice and autonomy can enhance individuals’ intrinsic motivation alongside their extrinsic motivation. In contrast, contingent or controlling external factors, such as strictly tied rewards or punishments, may lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation and a reliance solely on extrinsic motivation.

Can intrinsic and extrinsic motivation coexist?

Yes, cognitive evaluation theory states that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can coexist and interact with each other. The theory suggests that environmental factors, such as the presence of rewards or evaluation, can influence the level of intrinsic motivation someone experiences. While intrinsic motivation is generally considered to be a more desirable form of motivation due to its self-sustaining nature, extrinsic motivation can serve as a helpful tool to initiate or maintain engagement in certain activities. However, it is important to maintain a balance between the two and not rely solely on external rewards as they can undermine intrinsic motivation over time.

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