External Reinforcement and Intrinsic Motivation

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An educational theorist, Albert Bandura studied the Social Learning Theory which agrees with the Behaviorist theory, although Bandura’s theory consists of two more aspects. The two aspects Bandura includes are, behavior is learned through the process of observation and negotiating processes happen between responses and stimuli (Mcleod 2016). Intrinsic motivation corresponding with internal rewards is defined as behaviors that are compelled by those internal rewards (Cherry 2018). External reinforcement typically coincides with extrinsic motivation. External reinforcement is defined as a reinforcer or reward that is shown by parents or peers giving approval for an action that was well done (Mcleod 2016). The phenomenon of the overjustification effect is when a person is given an external reinforcement for an activity that is already internally rewarding, then the activity can become less intrinsically rewarding (Cherry 2018).

Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined by the American Psychological Association as a common neurological and developmental disorder characterized by deteriorations in social interactions, speech, and repeated behavioral patterns, activities and/or interests (Weiss et al. 2016). The three prominent behavioral symptoms of ASD are: repetitive, common behaviors, diminished social interactions, and broken communication (Weir 2012). In an education setting, reinforcement is fundamental and important in regards to the applied behavior analysis principles. Teachers that have students on ASD need to have strategies that will help their students succeed. The strategies teachers use are a behavior contract and a token economy. A behavior contract is an established written agreement that outlines in detail the expectations that the student and teacher need to carry out for the intervention plan. A token economy is a reward system that emphasizes positive behavior by rewarding the student with a token when they perform desired behavior (Unl.edu 2019). Reinforcement can be used for behavior management and it most effective in managing challenging behavior in children with ASD. Reinforcement can also be used to help children with autism learn new life skill behaviors and substitutes to repetitive behaviors (Positive reinforcement 2008).

Literature Review

Recent studies have indicated that external reinforcement can have an impact on children’s intrinsic motivation, specifically children with ASD. Annette Joosten, Anita Bundy, and Stewart Einfeld conducted a study that suggests that anxiety reducers can improve intrinsic motivation in children with autism (Joosten, A. et al. 2009). First, the researchers identified what stereotypic and repetitive behaviors looked like. The results showed that there was a moderate correlation between the Anxious Behavior Rating Scale and the Motivation Assessment Scale (Joosten, A. et al. 2009). Children with dual diagnoses showed results that anxiety is more of an intrinsic motivator that sensory. Joosten et al. helped in determining that researchers and educators need the ability to evaluate motivation in stereotypic and repeated behaviors showed by children with autism in order to create intervention programs that will lessen these behaviors (2009). The findings of this study suggest that research needs to be more focused on intervention methods designed to accommodate motivations instead of decreasing behaviors (Joosten, A. et al. 2009).

Another study by Jackie Dearden, Anne Emerson, Tom Lewis and Rebecca Papp studied a 10-year-old girl with ASD. Dearden et al. wanted to study the effects of MORE (Means, Opportunities, Reasons and Expectations) on improving communication and engagement in children with autism (Dearden, J. et al. 2017). Over a period of two years and four months, the participant was watched and Dearden et al. concluded that engaging behaviors, such as following adult directions and interactions with adults increased, and resistant behaviors, including hitting, and kicking adults, decreased (Dearden, J. et al. 2017). The MORE was chosen as the approach to study because it is meant to improve intrinsic motivation in working with adults as a support in their learning. Dearden et al. focused on the use of age appropriate language with the participant. The results show that children with autism have a steady increase in engaging behaviors corresponding with reducing non-engaging behaviors when exposed to improving intrinsic motivators (Dearden, J. et al. 2017). Dearden et al. shows that intrinsic motivation can increase engaging interactions, such as communication, between children with ASD and adults.

A research study administered by Justin Leaf, Stephanie Dale, Alyne Kassardjian, Kathleen Tsuji, Mitchell Taubman, John McEachin, and Ronald Leaf studied the different levels of reinforcement on children with autism. Leaf et al. used four different categories of positive reinforcement, feedback, toys, praise, and food (2014). The reinforcement tools were based on standard acquisition skill. Reinforcement can increase pro-social skills, such as academic and pre-academic tasks, language, and social skills (Leaf et al. 2014). One of the skills taught during this experiment was to teach each participant to label pictures in great detail. The results of Leaf et al. implies sensory reinforcement is more opposed to satiation when more than one reinforcer is given during a lesson (2014). Leaf et al. results indicated that a variety of reinforcement levels are productive in teaching participants diagnosed with autism thoughtful language skills (Leaf et al. 2014).

A recent study organized by Brittany Beaver, Sharon Reeve, Kenneth Reeve, and Ruth DeBar tested children with autism’s ability to self-reinforce. The participants were instructed to follow a schedule on an iPod touch and complete a daily living task, a leisure task, and a vocational task (Beaver et al. 2017). The instructor proximity faded over time until they were completely removed from the room to support independence during self-reinforcement. Beaver et al. results indicate high percentages of completed schedules and on-task behavior (2017). Throughout the self-reinforcement condition, instructor proximity faded overtime in fewer sessions than throughout the teacher-delivered condition. The final results of the Beaver et al. study indicate that self-reinforcement is as productive as teacher-delivered reinforcement (2017). However, the self-reinforcement task did not require an extra trainer in order to deliver the reward, which suggests that self-reinforcement is probably more appropriate for children with ASD than teacher-delivered reinforcement. Self-reinforcement is likely more suitable for people with autism because this type of reinforcement can eliminate the factor of public supervision (Beaver et al. 2017). Final results of Beaver et al. concluded that further research is required in order to determine strategies for skills and surroundings that are successful in advancing independence in the community (Beaver et al. 2017).

The studies conducted above explored children’s abilities to have intrinsic motivation and what effects external reinforcement would have on their motivation; all of the participants were on the autism spectrum. Joosten et al. concluded that in children with autism, anxiety is more of an intrinsic motivator than sensory motivators (2009). Dearden et al. resulted in the participants being more motivated in engaging behaviours (2017). Leaf et al. studied how different reinforcement tools would encourage more prosocial behaviors; the results showed that language skills were accumulated through the different types of reinforcement (2014). Beaver et al. concluded that self-reinforcement is a more efficient tool in individuals with autism than teacher reinforcement (2017).

Research Proposal

In this research, participants will be ages birth-11. The research will examine the effects external reinforcements on an already internally rewarding activity. This age range will allow the researcher to evaluate the effects in relation to Piaget’s stages of development. All participants need to have previously been diagnosed with autism. Participants will be randomly selected from the ASD population, in hopes of strengthening the experiment’s external validity, so that the findings can be applied to other children with autism. The participants will be separated into two groups, a control group and an experimental group. In the control group children will be observed in their natural habitat with internal reinforcement for their behaviors. In the experimental group, children will receive external rewards for already intrinsically motivating behaviors. The previously stated hypothesis will be tested with the independent variable being intrinsic motivation and the dependent variable being the type of reinforcement. Researchers will recruit student participants from local educational settings throughout the United States. Students will be recruited based on their diagnosis, demographic location, age, and gender. If the results show a significance with the treatment of external reinforcement on intrinsically motivating behaviors in children with ASD, then the control group will also be offered the same test.


Once the children are separated into groups, the researchers will screen the children in the experimental group to notice what they already find intrinsically motivating, this will allow the researcher to know which activities to externally reinforce. The screening will take roughly 30 minutes, so as to not cause the child overexhaustion. During the screening, along with observation, the children will be required to take the Children’s Motivation Analysis Test (CMAT), which will manipulate curiosity and boredom. The CMAT is an objective and intricate instrument measuring many important and influential traits of motivation in young school children. The observation and CMAT will assist the researchers in determining which activities the participants are already intrinsically motivated by, therefore eliminating activities the researchers should not externally reward. Based on determined activities, participants will then be externally reinforced for previously intrinsically motivating behaviours.

The two group experiment study will follow an independent samples t-test design. Both groups will experience activities that are intrinsically motivating, but the control group will receive no external rewards, while the experimental group will receive rewards. Both groups of participants will take the CMAT prior to any other exposure to types of reinforcement. Once the experimental group has undergone testing, they will take the CMAT again to identify any changes in intrinsic motivation after having received external rewards for previously intrinsically motivating behaviours.


Before the experiment takes place, all participants must undergo a screening that will determine their eligibility to partake in the study. Once the screening is complete, participants will be randomly split into the control group and experimental group. Both groups will have the same number of children that are of the same age, so as to generalize the results. When the groups have been identified, participants will then take the CMAT, which will help the researchers identify types of behaviours to test and reward. Every participant, in both groups, will participate in the determined behaviors. After about 30 minutes completing the said behavior, the experimental group will be externally rewarded for their participation and the control group will be internally rewarded. Afterwards, the participants will retake the CMAT to identify any differences in their scores of motivation. An independent samples t-test will be used to analyze any significant changes in intrinsic motivation after completing the study. After results have been finalized, parents and participants of both groups will be informed of the results, so that they can determine future plans in educational settings. This research study was approved by the IRB.

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External Reinforcement and Intrinsic Motivation. (2021, Feb 27). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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