Instrumental Motivation is Extrinsic Motivation: So What???

  • Willy Lens University of Leuven
  • Maria Paula Paixão Universidade de Coimbra
  • Dora Herrera Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Universidad de Costa Rica


The present anticipation of future goals creates instrumental motivation for immediate actions that are expected to be instrumental for achieving those future goals. Instrumental motivation is however by definition extrinsic motivation. Based on empirical research in educational settings, it is commonly argued that extrinsic motivation is of lower quality than intrinsic motivation. More recent developments in motivational psychology – in particular the development from the Cognitive Evaluation Theory into the Self-Determination Theory – replaced the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation by the more relevant distinction between autonomous and controlled motivation or behavioral regulation. Some types of extrinsic motivation belong to the category autonomous motivation, that is the case when the individual integrates or identifies with the external reason for doing the activity. We review empirical research from our research group that shows that instrumental motivation that is based on anticipated future goals can be autonomous and hence have a high quality. What matters is the content of the future goals and how they regulate behavior. Intrinsic future goals which are not perceived by the individual as externally controlling but as creating autonomous motivation/behavioral regulation are almost as adaptive as intrinsic motivation.


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Lens, W., Paixão, M. P., & Herrera, D. (2009). Instrumental Motivation is Extrinsic Motivation: So What???. Psychologica, (50), p. 21-40.