Incentive Theory of Motivation

The theory of motivation that suggests that the behavior is motivated because of reinforcement or incentives is referred to as Incentive Theory of Motivation.


We do what we do for variety of reasons, and different psychologists have offered their own explanations to motivations behind our actions. Whether it could be internal desires or wishes pushing us towards certain actions or it could also be the desire to achieve external rewards. 

"Building on the base established by drive theories, incentive theories emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Incentive theories proposed that behavior is motivated by the "pull" of external goals, such as rewards, money, or recognition. It's easy to think of many situations in which a particular goal, such as a promotion at work, can serve as an external incentive that helps activate particular behaviors."
(Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2003)

[Related Reading: Theories of Motivation]

How Does Incentive Theory Work?

Incentive theory, unlike other theories like Drive Reduction theory, Arousal Theory and Instinct Theory of Motivation, suggest that our actions are influenced by outside incentives. It is different as the individual does not desire to reduce the stimulus, but instead becomes attracted to it.

If we look back to the theory of Operant Conditioning, individuals learn behavior either to gain reinforcement or avoid punishment. Incentive theory is quite similar to this, as it suggests that rewards are what drive our actions. There are commonly two types of incentives, positive and negative

Positive Incentives

Positive incentives refer to rewards or reinforcement provided for the actions. For instance, a teacher praises her student for completing his homework. This makes him want to continue completing his work in the future. She could also reward him with better marks, recognition in the class or a treat for a job well done. These are other forms of positive incentives.

Negative incentives

Negative incentives are exactly opposite and only offered when positive incentives do not work. For instance, the same teacher could criticize her student for not completing his homework. This negative incentive could be failing him, making him stand outside the class, etc.


  • Good grades are the incentives that motivate students to study hard. The incentives can also be the prize at the end of the year.
  • A teenage girl could be motivated to clean the house with the promise of a new dress, where the dress acts as an incentive.


  • "The value of an incentive can change over time and in different situations," notes author Stephen L. Franzoi in his text Psychology: A Discovery Experience.
  • Psychological, cognitive and social factors can play a role in what incentives one finds motivating and to what degree. For instance, a person might be motivated to work with huge pay check as incentive, while another who already has money might be motivated with name rather than fame.
  • Incentives are only powerful if the individual places importance on the reward they’re about to receive for their actions. Also, the rewards must be realistic and achievable. For instance, a person might not be motivated to finish a 100 page presentation report in half an hour because it’s unrealistic.
  • Incentives can be used to get people to engage in certain behaviors, but they can also be used to get people to stop performing certain actions.