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What is Intrinsic Motivation & How Does it Work?

What is Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive that propels a person to pursue an activity, not for external rewards, but because the action itself is enjoyable. In other words, a person is motivated by the fun, challenge, or satisfaction involved with an activity, not for an outside outcome, pressure, or reward.

In psychology, intrinsic motivation is known as the best type of motivation.

Defining “Intrinsic”

To understand intrinsic motivation, we first have to understand what exactly it means for something to be intrinsic.

The word “intrinsic” means that something is inherent by nature. It is sometimes referred to as “inner”, which refers to something coming from within.

Boy runs for fun not for trophy - intrinsic motivation

In psychology, the two main types of motivation are intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation​1​.

And, as you may have predicted, being extrinsically motivated refers to doing an activity to attain some separable outcome, such as earning a reward or avoiding punishment.

Together, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations make up the underlying reasons, attitudes, and goals that give rise to human behavior.

They are essentially the “why” we do what we do.

Child on left studies happily, child on right feels anxious studying - internal motivation

Intrinsic Motivation Examples

Here are some examples of intrinsic motivation.

  • studying math because you enjoy solving problems, not because you want to please your parents
  • practicing tennis because it is fun, not because you want to win an award
  • playing the piano because you enjoy making music, not to avoid punishment
  • reading a novel for pleasure, not because you need to write a book report
  • volunteering because you enjoy helping others, not because you want others to like you
  • working hard because you enjoy being good at it rather than earning a bonus
  • taking a walk to relax instead of losing weight
  • playing with your child to enjoy spending time together, not because you want to avoid a tantrum
  • saying thank you because you like to show appreciation, instead of following social rules
  • preparing a meal because you like cooking dishes, not because you are hungry
  • making craft to enjoy being creative rather than selling it for money
  • doing chores because you enjoy organizing, but because you want to get an allowance
  • learning a new language because you enjoy learning new things, not because you want to work overseas
  • tutoring little kids because you enjoy teaching them, not because you want to earn a salary
  • helping your neighbor because you like helping others, not because you want them to return the favor later

Why Intrinsic Motivation is Good

Intrinsic motivation is considered better than extrinsic motivation because people who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to be​1​:

  • Successful – They achieve better results.
  • Committed – They have a stronger sense of personal commitment.
  • Persistent – They perform more persistently and are less likely to quit when facing difficulties.
  • Creative – They are more creative and more likely to come up with novel ideas and solutions. Intrinsic motivation is an important component of creativity.
Kids racing how to develop intrinsic motivation

What are Intrinsic Rewards

There are many activities we pursue simply for the enjoyment or satisfaction they bring about.

They may include activities like:

  • Reading a novel
  • Playing a sport
  • Learning a new task
  • Doing a puzzle
  • Volunteering

We don’t necessarily do these activities to produce something or be rewarded in any way, but because we enjoy the tasks and they make us feel happy or satisfied.

These feelings of enjoyment, happiness or satisfaction are what psychologists called intrinsic rewards (sometimes called inner or internal rewards).

Intrinsic rewards drive intrinsic motivation.

Some examples of intrinsic rewards are

  • A sense of competence when you master a new task or skill,
  • A sense of accomplishment when you see success in your work,
  • A sense of belonging when you participate in group activities, and
  • A sense of meaning when you volunteer in a non-profit or mentor someone.

Theories of Motivation

Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

Self-Determination Theory states that a person’s experience of autonomy, competence and relatedness can affect their intrinsic motivation.

This means that intrinsic motivation can be facilitated or undermined under specific conditions​2​.

Studies have found that one of the most significant motivating factors is the feeling of competence.

For example, when you complete a difficult task or master a new skill successfully, you feel a sense of accomplishment, which makes you happy. You are then intrinsically motivated to do it again or try to master it even more.

A good illustration of this is playing video games.

Gamers who successfully graduate from one level to the next feel a sense of competence. This is one of the reasons why well-designed video games are so addictive. Gamers have an internal motivation to play for the activity itself and don’t do it for any extrinsic reward​3​.

So, events and structures that conduce feelings of competence can enhance enjoyment. They include an optimal level of challenges, positive competence feedback and a lack of demeaning evaluations.

But there is an important piece missing.

Inside motivation is only developed under a very specific condition.

Intrinsic motivation comes from individual feeling that they are doing the activity out of their “free choice”. In other words, one has to think that they have autonomy to choose whether to engage in the behaviors.

In one classic study that perfectly demonstrates this phenomenon, researchers asked college students to work on a puzzle, but told only half of the students that they would be paid for doing the work.

After completing the puzzle and taking a short break, the students were left alone to do whatever they wanted. They could continue to work on another puzzle or do other things available in the lab.

It turned out that the students who were not paid were the ones who voluntarily worked on another puzzle.

So, providing an extrinsic reward for the student’s work diminished their desire to do it voluntarily. When an extrinsic reward is imposed, doing the puzzle is no longer a free choice​4,5​.

Another factor that can impact intrinsic motivation is relatedness, which refers to how well one feels connected, secure, respected and cared for.

For example, a baby who is securely attached to their parent shows more desire to explore. They are more motivated to interact with their surroundings and engage in learning. The play is intrinsically motivated.

According to one research, when kids work on an exciting task in the presence of a stranger, their intrinsic motivation actually decreases if the stranger ignores them and doesn’t respond to their initiation.

People can be intrinsically motivated to do an interesting activity alone. Therefore, relatedness is not a necessary condition for intrinsic motivation. Yet it is still an influential factor that can affect one’s intrinsically motivated behavior.

Couple play video game define intrinsically motivated

Intrinsic Motivation Theory

One of the most common ways parents motivate their children to adopt a new behavior is to give rewards, such as toys, money or more time on the iPad.

Parents are hoping that the child will associate the positive outcome with the behavior and, as a result, are more likely to repeat it in the future.

Using a reinforcement to incentivize a target behavior is a learning process called operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning can often bring about a fast change in behavior​6​. Unfortunately, there is a downside: it doesn’t increase intrinsic motivation for kids.

Although giving rewards can increase behavior momentarily, it is only affecting one’s extrinsic motivations.

In fact, research shows that extrinsic rewards can actually undermine intrinsic motivation, demotivating children from acting on their own.

In order words, offering extrinsic rewards for an already intrinsically rewarding activity actually makes it less satisfying to people. The external rewards have become a demotivator instead of a motivator.

This is called the overjustification effect.

The overjustification effect is often seen in companies that offer a bonus to boost productivity.

Although employee productivity may rise momentarily, the actual quality of the work performed decreases. And when the bonus runs out, employees are left with a reduced inner motivation. The loss in interest and productivity could only be compensated by an even bigger bonus, if it’s even possible at all.

Man refuses cash - benefits of intrinsic motivation examples

How To Increase Intrinsic Motivation

Fortunately, although we cannot use traditional rewards to motivate people intrinsically, there are other ways to enhance intrinsic motivation factors.

Here are some intrinsic motivators you can use to get motivated:

1. Look for the Intrinsic Reward

An intrinsic motivator only exists when an activity holds intrinsic value for the person who engages in it, so the activity has to hold such appeal or there will be no intrinsic motivation.

Look for aspects of the activity that interest you, or internalize the innate reason why you want to participate.

2. Engage in an Optimal Level of Challenge

Challenge yourself with a task that is not easy, but also not so hard that it is unattainable.

Stretching your limit and then achieving success can give you a tremendous sense of competence and boost internal motivation.

3. Seek Positive Feedback

Receiving a badge or some kind of recognition for reaching a specific goal or level of task can also provide a sense of competence​4​.

4. Do It for Yourself

The intrinsic drive can only exist when people can freely decide whether to engage or not.

Choose a task that naturally interests you and do it for the pure enjoyment, with no strings attached​4​.

5. Find a buddy

If possible, find a person to do the activity with you.

Look for someone you can relate to and someone who can provide positive feedback without any demeaning criticism.

Doing something as a team also has the added benefit of helping each other, generating a sense of competence and belonging.


References

  1. 1.
    Deci EL, Ryan RM. Intrinsic Motivation. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. January 2010. doi:10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0467
  2. 2.
    Ryan RM, Deci EL. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 2000:68-78. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68
  3. 3.
    Ryan RM, Rigby CS, Przybylski A. The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach. Motiv Emot. November 2006:344-360. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9051-8
  4. 4.
    Koestner R, Ryan RM, Bernieri F, Holt K. Setting limits on children’s behavior: The differential effects of controlling vs. informational styles on intrinsic motivation and creativity. J Personality. September 1984:233-248. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1984.tb00879.x
  5. 5.
    Anderson R, Manoogian ST, Reznick JS. The undermining and enhancing of intrinsic motivation in preschool children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1976:915-922. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.34.5.915
  6. 6.
    Staddon JER, Cerutti DT. Operant Conditioning. Annu Rev Psychol. February 2003:115-144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124

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