Discipline Defined: Understanding Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

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The words “discipline” and “self discipline” are often used as near-synonyms. Yet they are far closer to polar opposites. Understanding the differences between “discipline” and “self-discipline” is key to success for individuals, families, and work groups.

What We Want

“I need to discipline my daughter to clean her room.” “My team needs to be more disciplined about filing their reports on time.” On the surface, these are easy problems to solve: apply punishments and rewards to make it unpleasant for people to do the wrong thing and enjoyable to do it right. Creating such conditions is the act of discipline (the verb).

Disciplining people can be exhausting. Punishments and rewards are time-consuming and expensive. Over time, people become accustomed to rewards and they aren’t as motivating. Some tasks are so intrinsically unpleasant that almost no level of reward or punishment will ensure compliance in the long run. We want the right behavior without doing a big song-and-dance to motivate people each time. We want them to “be self-disciplined” (“disciplined” as an adjective) or “have discipline” (a noun). This implies some inner change in the other person that will make them do the right thing without exhortation.

We can use the word “discipline” to mean two very different (though similar-looking) phenomena. Discipline the verb means an external change to the environment to foster behavior. Discipline the noun means an interior change to the individual which in turn motivates the behavior. And in both cases, the external behavior looks the same: same word, same outcome, but with a very different focus. It’s no wonder we have confusion.

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Fortunately, parents and managers can look to psychology for some insight into the two kinds of “discipline.” More formally, psychologists call the punishment-and-reward kind of discipline “extrinsic motivation” and the internally-based self-discipline is categorized under “intrinsic motivation.”


Confusing extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is bad enough, but the fatal mistake is using extrinsic motivation (disciplining, using punishment-and-reward) and expecting it to foster intrinsic motivation or self-discipline. Unfortunately, that’s exactly backwards: extrinsic motivation corrodes intrinsic motivation. Super-fit soldiers just out of basic training often become pot-bellied and sedentary after they leave their units. Relatively well-behaved teens wait until their parents go away on a trip to hold blow-out house parties. The damage to intrinsic motivations has also been demonstrated in research. Children rewarded for reading more books read more books as long as the reward lasts. But as soon as the rewards are taken away, they read fewer books than children who were never incentivised to read in the first place.

Seeking Self-Discipline

If punishments and rewards erode rather than build self-discipline, then what can be done to foster it? Here are a few ideas for getting others (not to mention yourself!) to do the right thing without continuous goading.

Who’s Driving?

Perhaps the biggest difference between discipline and self-discipline is that discipline is external and self-discipline is by definition internal. Therefore, even if you’re the one attempting to foster self-discipline in someone else, unless you recognize and communicate that this is something the other person must do for themselves, then it’s right back on the external motivation treadmill. Punishment and reward just feels manipulative, and in addition to squelching intrinsic motivation, it also tends to lead people to do the minimum level of work to get the reward or avoid the punishment.

In the Moment

So if focusing on the punishments and rewards is a mistake, where should one’s focus be? On the work itself, ideally. Focusing on the task lends itself to discovering the nuances and intricacies of the work. Something as simple as washing dishes can become interesting with the right perspective. How many dishes can you clean in an hour? How many plates can you safely pack into the dishwasher? What’s the best way to repack them on the shelf? None of these potentially engaging questions will occur if the focus remains on resentment at being dressed down by a boss or anticipating a raise in the future.

Remembering What Matters

Another way to say “intrinsic motivation” is “people doing things for their own reasons.” Even the simplest task could be motivated by dozens of reasons. One could clean dishes to earn money, yes. Maybe the money is to feed one’s family. Or maybe the reason for cleaning dishes is to make sure that the restaurant patrons don’t get food poisoning or to help them have a pleasant dining experience. Asking someone to come up with personally-salient reasons for doing a task, and reviewing those motivations on a regular basis, is a recipe for building intrinsic motivation.

No Fun? You’re Done

“No pain, no gain?” Far from it. Not all tasks can be made pleasant. Yet a little thought and experimentation can take a lot of the sting out of drudgery. I have little doubt that iPods and other portable music devices have helped legions of weekend warriors keep their commitments to work out on a regular basis. Sometimes all it takes is a change in venue, the right tool, or a different time of day to make an unpleasant task more palatable.

Inch by Inch, It’s a Cinch

Another obstacle is the belief that one must do a lot of some activity for it to be worthwhile. I’d rather someone work for 5 minutes and then stop than to be overwhelmed by some massive external standard. Making big tasks into little tasks lowers the amount of intrinsic motivation needed to get into motion. Having small, short-term goals that you pick yourself can help make incremental progress more visible.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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