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Intrinsic Goals vs Extrinsic Goals – Which is Better for Your Child

Intrinsic goals | Extrinsic goals | Intrinsic vs extrinsic goals | Which type is better | How to set intrinsic personal goals | Why do people focus on extrinsic goals

Did you know that self-motivation could be enhanced or undermined by the type of goal we set?

There are two types of goals: intrinsic goals and extrinsic goals. Although these goals can sometimes appear similar, the nature of goals can lead to different outcomes in the long run.

father son lift weights together in gym

Intrinsic goals

Intrinsic goals are motivated by internal reasons or inherent psychological needs, such as the feelings of competence or relatedness​1​.

These are examples of intrinsic motivation driven goals.

  • Solve a difficult math problem to overcome a challenge
  • Learn to ride a bike to master a new skill
  • Join the boy scout to become part of a group
  • Volunteer at a charity organization to enjoy community involvement

They are intrinsic goals because they are inherently valuable or satisfying, and not dependent on the external evaluations of others.

Extrinsic goals

Extrinsic goals are results that satisfy external reasons and they usually depend on the contingent external approval and rewards from others.

These are examples of extrinsic motivation driven goals.

  • Solve a difficult math problem for others to get money
  • Learn to ride a bike to look competent to others
  • Join the boy scout to complete the school’s requirement
  • Volunteer at a charity organization to get social recognition

However, these extrinsic aspirations are not the actual goals as they do not provide satisfaction on their own. The personal satisfaction comes from external factors such as the presumed admiration of others or the perceived power and self-worth derived from attaining them.

External goals typically include financial success (wealth), social recognition (fame), and appearance (image). In the media, these are the traits generally portrayed as a person’s signs of success or living a good life.

Intrinsic goals vs extrinsic goals

The main difference between intrinsic and extrinsic goals is that the motivation behind intrinsic goals is internal while the motivation for attaining extrinsic goals is external contingent on others’ approval.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic goals may lead to similar behaviors and results, but the driving force behind them is different. Extrinsic motivators can have a negative impact on the quality of the actions or the well-being of the individuals.

The two different types of motivations are intrinsic motivation and external motivation.

Intrinsic goals drive intrinsic motivation, while extrinsic goals lead to extrinsic motivation.

Which type of goal is better

The Self-determination Theory suggests that human beings have three innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration. They are autonomy, competence, and relatedness​2​.

Self-motivation and outcomes will be affected differently by the two kinds of goals.

Studies have shown that intrinsic goals are far more beneficial for psychological health than extrinsic goals in the long run​3​.

The pursuit of intrinsic goals has a positive effect on well-being because they satisfy the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They are conducive to mental health as they promote people’s natural growth tendencies and personal development​4​.

In contrast, goals that are highly extrinsic (e.g., wealth, image, and fame) are less directly satisfying to the basic psychological needs. Externally oriented goals tend to be associated with excessive social comparisons and unstable self-esteem, both of which have negative effects on well-being. 

Extrinsic goal pursuits can also overshadow intrinsically motivated behavior.

Extrinsically motivated people tend to lose touch with their intrinsic needs, such as close relationships friends and family. They have less positive feelings, more negative moods, less life satisfaction, and less psychological adjustment​5​.

Because they rely on external signs of success to motivate their efforts, they are highly concerned with the opinion of others. They may engage in stressful interpersonal comparisons and have a contingent sense of self-esteem that is shaped by external influence​6​.

How to set intrinsic personal goals

To set intrinsic life goals, consider if the goals can satisfy any of the following psychological needs.

Autonomy

Autonomy refers to a sense of control. The goal is chosen voluntarily, not because of tangible rewards, threats, deadlines, or any other external pressures. 

To attain a sense of autonomy, an intrinsic goal needs to be 

  • Chosen by you
  • You’re passionate or curious about it
  • Make you happy or turn you into an energetic person
  • You can self-direct or have a high degree of control
  • Aligns with your core values

Competence

Learning new skills can give you an unparalleled sense of competence. 

You feel competent when the goals are

  • Challenging enough for you to learn something new
  • But not too challenging that you cannot accomplish
  • A help to personal growth

Relatedness

Humans are wired to thrive in the community when there is a sense of belonging. 

You can feel related to others when you can

  • Create or strengthen relationships
  • With people you feel similar to, or like
  • Contribute to a bigger cause or to the community

Why do we still focus on extrinsic goals

While people prefer intrinsic goals like growth and relationships over extrinsic goals like financial incentives and public image, society still tends to overemphasize extrinsic goals, which can be detrimental to people’s well-being.

Why do we do that?

The choice of goals becomes more extrinsic and less intrinsic when people are under psychological threat to things like self-esteem, social inclusion, or their sense of control​7​.

When safety and security are threatened, individuals tend to focus less on growth and well-being and more on issues such as money, image, and status.

One theory suggests that extrinsic goal setting may have provided short-term survival advantages in our evolutionary past, so we are “hard-wired” to turn to them in times of threat and insecurity​8​.

Conditions that pose threats to children and adolescents include:

  • controlling or dehumanizing academic environments
  • parents who are controlling and non-nurturing
  • parents who are overly punitive or inconsistent
  • socio-economic factors such as poverty​9​

References

  1. 1.
    Duriez B, Vansteenkiste M, Soenens B, De Witte H. The Social Costs of Extrinsic Relative to Intrinsic Goal Pursuits: Their Relation With Social Dominance and Racial and Ethnic Prejudice. Journal of Personality. Published online June 7, 2007:757-782. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00456.x
  2. 2.
    Deci EL, Eghrari H, Patrick BC, Leone DR. Facilitating Internalization: The Self-Determination Theory Perspective. J Personality. Published online March 1994:119-142. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1994.tb00797.x
  3. 3.
    Vansteenkiste M, Lens W, Deci EL. Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the Quality of Academic Motivation. Educational Psychologist. Published online March 2006:19-31. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4101_4
  4. 4.
    Vansteenkiste M, Simons J, Lens W, Sheldon KM, Deci EL. Motivating Learning, Performance, and Persistence: The Synergistic Effects of Intrinsic Goal Contents and Autonomy-Supportive Contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2004:246-260. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.2.246
  5. 5.
    Kasser T, Ahuvia A. Materialistic values and well-being in business students. Eur J Soc Psychol. Published online January 2002:137-146. doi:10.1002/ejsp.85
  6. 6.
    Ryan RM, Sheldon KM, Kasser T, Deci EL. All goals are not created equal: An organismic perspective on the nature of goals and their regulation. In: The Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behavior. The Guilford Press; 1996:7–26.
  7. 7.
    Sheldon KM, Kasser T. Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving. Motiv Emot. Published online March 2008:37-45. doi:10.1007/s11031-008-9081-5
  8. 8.
    Buss DM. The evolution of happiness. American Psychologist. Published online 2000:15-23. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.15
  9. 9.
    Kasser T, Ryan RM, Zax M, Sameroff AJ. The relations of maternal and social environments to late adolescents’ materialistic and prosocial values. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1995:907-914. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.31.6.907

About Pamela Li, MS, MBA

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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