Intrinsic Motivation—The Mark Of Your True Passions ❤️
We’re all naturally drawn to certain activities, which we seek out without needing to be nudged or lured, purely because we enjoy them. It might be gory horror movies, a favourite hiking route filled with twittering birds, or an intriguing work project that is just the right amount of challenging. Everyone has some kind of activity they find compelling, and when this is the case, we have intrinsic motivation for it.
Intrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation that we want more of. It propels us to the things that we find personally valuable, which when pursued, can lead to a wonderful sense of fulfilment and well being.
In this article, we explore the idea behind intrinsic motivation, how it compares against its extrinsic counterpart, and how to cultivate more of it.
What is intrinsic motivation?
“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”
Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive that compels people to complete activities for their own sake, not for an external reward or to avoid punishment. An example of an intrinsically motivated activity is listening to music—we listen because the music is enjoyable, not because we’re getting an external reward for listening to it. The motivation for this activity comes from within, which makes it intrinsic.
Another example of an intrinsically motivated activity is reading a fictional book for pleasure. We don’t rush through the book so that we can get it over and done with, but instead allow ourselves to become absorbed by the gripping details of the story, which is rewarding for its own sake. If we choose to read a book for an external reward, like trudging through a book on stock market trading so that we might become richer, the activity is extrinsically motivated.
Intrinsic motivation was born out of self-determination theory—a theory developed by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan in the 70s and 80s that transformed the way people viewed human motivation. Before this breakthrough, motivation was dominated by B.F Skinner’s behaviorism, which stated that every animal’s behaviour is driven by external incentives. When Deci and Ryan released their book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation on Human Behaviour, it became clear that the cause of people’s behaviour was much more complicated, and that we aren’t forever chasing carrots on sticks, forced onwards like proverbial asses. Instead, the things that motivate us are both internal and external, and that those with a higher amount of internally-generated motivation tend to be better learners, higher performers, more creative, and most importantly, happier.1 Because of these positive benefits, Deci and Ryan call intrinsic motivation “high-quality motivation,” and the kind of person who exhibits it on a regular basis is self-determined, tending to have the following beliefs and characteristics:
- They believe they are in control of their lives.
- They take responsibility for their behaviour (they take credit when due, and don’t blame others for mistakes).
- They are intrinsically self-motivated by their values, interests, and sense of morality.
When we are intrinsically motivated, we seek out challenges and develop skills because those activities are enjoyable all by themselves. You can imagine the colossal benefits you might gain from such an attitude, despite those benefits not being the goal. A person who is intrinsically motivated to complete a task is more engaged, will stay at it for longer, and is more likely to learn from the experience, and if the task is helping to develop your skills, you may get higher wages, have better working relationships, and be generally happier at work. As a result, the external rewards reinforce your intrinsic motivation (provided they don’t become the goal).
Intrinsic motivation is also necessary to achieve flow—a state in which you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing, and lose all sense of time. This theory was developed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who observed the phenomenon in people who complete intrinsically-motivated tasks that match their skill level. When this happens, they can achieve the blissful, egoless state of flow.
“…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
According to self-determination theory, we have three psychological needs that must be met before we can develop intrinsic motivation:
- Autonomy—the need to be self-sufficient, without help from others.
- Competence—the need to be skilled and able to complete tasks to a good standard.
- Relatedness (or connection)—we need positive relationships with others, and a sense of belonging.
When we freely choose tasks, do them well, and for a person or group that we relate to, our intrinsic motivation is strengthened, and we’re more likely to complete the task again. And if we steadily increase the difficulty of the task, our competence increases with it, and you grow as a person (on this topic, check out our article on the excellent Growth Mindset).
Intrinsic motivation usually comes from the things that we value, which we’re naturally drawn towards. If you love animals, you may find yourself watching nature documentaries and supporting animal-based charities, and smiling when you hear the dulcet tones of Mr. Attenborough. If you treasure boldness, you may put yourself forward for difficult work projects, and throw yourself out of an airplane every chance you get. Whatever your core values, they’re likely to intrinsically guide you towards activities that match them.
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
“We each possess the capacity for self-development. We also possess the capacity for self-destruction. The path that we chose to take—to pursue lightness or darkness—is the story that we take to our graves.”
—Kilroy J. Oldster
When comparing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, the first is always preferable. But we don’t live in a vacuum where we can carry out our intrinsic desires without interference from others. Our species is social, and to thrive, our motivations must always be a mixture of internal and external.
There will be countless situations where you’re extrinsically motivated by something—your paycheck, an admiring look from a stranger, the caffeine hit from your morning coffee—and this isn’t a bad thing. Many intrinsic motivations may start as extrinsic, having developed from a reward that you were reaching for, but eventually becoming the reward itself—a process known in self-determination theory as “integration.” A career can be an example of this. We work because we need money to survive, but if you’re lucky enough to have developed a true passion for your career, you realise that it’s both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. Such a person is intrinsically drawn towards their daily tasks, trying to complete their work to a high standard and enjoying the process for its own sake, while also receiving a paycheck for it. In another example, you may have started reading psychology books to attain a university degree, but found the subject fascinating, at which point it changes from an extrinsic motivation to an intrinsic one. In this way, extrinsic motivators are like treasure maps that can lead us to intrinsic motivators, and we need a good deal of experimental hunting to find them.
Encouragement and praise are other examples of extrinsic rewards that can lead to intrinsic motivation. If a supportive mentor encourages you to work hard at a task, and then praises you for your efforts, you’re likely to feel more competent, and may find that you want to complete the task again. When this pattern is repeated, an intrinsic motivation may be solidified for the activity, when the encouragement and praise is no longer needed.
To make things a little more complicated, there’s not one type of extrinsic motivation but two—autonomous extrinsic motivation, where the reward is external but we’re happy to get on board, and controlled extrinsic motivation, where we feel pressured or forced to do something, as you would feel if your boss insisted on you doing overtime. Needless to say, because our will is being superseded by someone else’s, controlled extrinsic motivation fails to meet our need for autonomy, and little good can come from the activity. But autonomous extrinsic motivation, where we have a choice in the matter, can develop into a genuine passion for the activity, which becomes intrinsically motivating.
Sometimes, the shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation can be as simple as a change of perspective. If you hate going to the dentist, you’re likely to view this task as a horrible chore filled with needles, sharp tools, and a good helping of pain. But if you force yourself to focus on the positive parts of a dentist trip—having a nicer smile, better-smelling breath, and healthier teeth that last into old age—you may start to see the task as an inherently valuable choice to make, and while you may never enjoy it, this change of attitude can develop into an intrinsic motivation going forward, where you find yourself booking appointments without the inner conflict.
While extrinsic motivation is necessary in many areas of life, managers and executives should be cautious when using it to motivate employees. If a staff member consistently performs to a high-standard, with a high level of self-motivation for their daily work, introducing something like a commission scheme may shift their motivation from the task itself to the external reward, which can kill their intrinsic motivation. Suddenly, the work isn’t being completed for its enjoyment, but for the external reward, leading to a potentially disastrous drop in productivity (not to mention the unnecessary cost to the business). This phenomenon is known as the overjustification effect, and has been observed in many psychological studies.2 The same thing can happen when competition is introduced into a scenario—motivation shifts from the enjoyment of the task itself to beating everyone, from intrinsic to extrinsic, leading to a possible drop in performance.3
Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation
Extrinsic motivators drive us towards an external reward
When trying to understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it can help to see side-by-side examples. Here’s a list of tasks that describe the motivation from both sides.
|Running a business because you love the challenge||Running a business because you want to appear successful to others|
|Working late because you’re engrossed in a project||Working late because you’re worried about being fired|
|Learning a language because it fascinates you||Learning a language to move to another country|
|Having a coffee with a colleague because you enjoy their company||Having a coffee with a colleague because you want to get on their good side|
|Going to the gym because you value your health||Going to the gym because you want to attract a partner|
|Playing soccer because it’s fun||Playing soccer to become a professional|
|Drinking coffee because it’s delicious||Drinking coffee to wake you up|
|Going for a bike ride because you enjoy being out in nature||Going for a bike ride to get beefy legs for the ladies|
|Working hard because you love the work itself||Working hard to become richer|
|Learning boxing because you find the sport interesting||Learning boxing to defend yourself against attackers|
Of course, it isn’t so black and white. You may drink coffee because it’s delicious and it wakes you up. You’ll often find that a task has both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, it’s just a question of which are stronger.
Intrinsic motivation examples
Here are some common intrinsic motivation examples, to help clarify the concept:
- Having the courage to present to your company because you feel it’s important
- Marrying someone because you love being in their company
- Travelling to foreign cities because you find other cultures fascinating
- Tackling a difficult work problem because you enjoy the challenge
- Climbing a dangerous mountain because it puts you in a state of flow
- Learning a difficult guitar solo just for the thrill of it
- Maintaining a well-kept garden because you appreciate natural beauty
Extrinsic motivation examples
These are some examples of extrinsic motivation:
- Doing a good job because you’re worried your boss will yell at you
- Driving an expensive car to demonstrate high status
- Giving a presentation to impress management
- Listening to a particular genre of music because it’s what cool people do
- Striving for a c-suite job so that people respect you
- Playing in a football tournament because you want the trophy
How to get more intrinsic motivation
With so many wonderful benefits to intrinsic motivation, how do we get more of it? How do we identify which activities are truly internally motivated, and which are a result of external forces that may not be as beneficial? Here are some of the best ways to identify intrinsically motivating activities.
Identify your values to find intrinsic motivation
If you value something, there’s a good chance you’ll be intrinsically motivated to attain it. If you love nature, you’ll probably find yourself wandering around a local lake or mountain without much encouragement. If you’re a kind soul, you might be drawn towards charity work. Or if justice is your thing, you may have trained yourself to be a solicitor.
Whatever your values, they are a direct source of intrinsic motivation, and a way to discover meaning. Take some time to figure out the things you value the most, examining lists of core values and picking out those that resonate best with you. When you’re done, consider which activities would suit each value, and give them a try. In time, you might discover some intrinsically motivating passions that can make you a happier, more contented person who lives a truly meaningful life.
Values work for companies too, and can help them to develop their own personality and sense of meaning. Check out our article on Mission Vision Values to learn more.
Examine the source of your motivations
Write down the things that you do regularly, and your reasons for doing them. Then label each reason as either intrinsic or extrinsic. If you complete an activity mostly for extrinsic reasons, and the activity hasn’t become something that you value for its own sake, you might want to consider dropping it for something worthwhile.
If you’re unsure whether a reason is intrinsic or extrinsic, think about what would happen if you removed the reward. If you stopped receiving likes from your LinkedIn posts, would you still post them? If you stopped receiving compliments on your bulging biceps, would you do more cardio instead? Extrinsic motivators are nourished by external rewards, so thinking about what would happen if you removed the reward (or actually removing it) can be a handy way to weed them out.
If you’re a team leader who wants to boost intrinsic motivation for your staff, give some of these a try:
- Find out what motivates your employees, and see whether they can be realised in their daily goals and tasks.
- Encourage your employees to keep on learning, and praise them for doing so.
- Support your employees’ psychological need for autonomy. This can make them happier, more competent, and feel as though they’re in control of their lives.
- Be autonomous yourself, which staff members can take inspiration from.
- Encourage employees to set their own goals.
Intrinsic motivation pushes us towards activities that we truly value, which can develop into hardcore passions that make our lives better. There’ll always be plenty of extrinsic motivators in our lives (they’re necessary to help us discover intrinsic interests), but if we can err on the side of what we legitimately enjoy doing, and pursue these activities as much as we can, we’re sure for a happier life.
- Stefano I. Di Domenico1, and Richard M. Ryan, 2017, The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research, Frontiers In Human Neuroscience
- Carlson, R.Neil & Heth, C. Donald, 2007, Psychology the Science of Behaviour. Pearson Education: New Jersey