Did you know that self-motivation can 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.
Intrinsic goals are motivated by internal reasons or inherent psychological needs, such as the feelings of competence or relatedness1.
Intrinsic goals examples:
- 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 contribute to the community
They are intrinsic goals because they are inherently valuable or satisfying, and not dependent on the external evaluations of others.
Extrinsic goals are results that satisfy external reasons and they usually depend on the contingent external approval and rewards from others.
External goals examples:
- 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 goals are not the actual goals as they do not provide satisfaction on their own. The satisfaction comes from the presumed admiration of others or the perceived power and self-worth derived from attaining them.
Extrinsic 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.
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 motives behind them are different, which can impact the quality of the actions or the well-being of the individuals.
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 relatedness2.
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 run3.
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 development4.
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 connections with friends and family. They have less positive feelings, more negative moods, less life satisfaction, and less psychological adjustment5.
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 influence6.
How to set intrinsic personal goals
To set personal goals for intrinsic reasons, consider if the goals can satisfy any of the following psychological needs.
Autonomy refers to a sense of control. The goal is chosen voluntarily, not because of tangible rewards, threats, deadlines, or any other external pressures.
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
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
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 money 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 control7.
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 goals 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 insecurity8.
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 poverty9
- 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.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.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.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:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
- 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.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.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.Buss DM. The evolution of happiness. American Psychologist. Published online 2000:15-23. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.15
- 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:10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.117