Understanding Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation comes when you feel the urge to do something in order to gain a specific reward or steer clear of a punishment. An example of this would be working hard on a paper to get a good grade, or practicing a sport to win an award. Or maybe you go to work every day just to get that paycheck at the end of the month. No matter what the reward is, it is coming from an exterior source, and you are chasing something very specific. Intrinsic motivation is a bit more obtuse.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation pertains to any behavior that is driven only by internal rewards. This means the individual engages in a certain behavior that stems from self-motivation because they experience natural satisfaction.  

This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishment. Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.

Benefits of This Motivation

When you pursue an activity for the pure enjoyment of it, your motivations for engaging in the behavior arise entirely from within rather than out of a desire to gain some type of external rewards such as a prize, money, or acclaim.

The concept of intrinsic motivation was first acknowledged when conducting experimental studies on animal behavior. It was seen that animals engaged in playful activities even without any presence of reward. Intrinsic motivation has now been found to be a fundamental natural motivation tendency in the cognitive, social and physical development of an organism. It is an important factor that helps a person to learn and improve themselves to be better.

In order to achieve Intrinsic motivation, the individual must feel the need to have complete control over one’s own life (autonomy), the need to maintain companionship or connection with others (relatedness), and the need to do the best and succeed in the activity.

Motivation To Learn

Intrinsic motivation is an important topic in education. Teachers and instructional designers strive to develop learning environments that are intrinsically rewarding. Unfortunately, many traditional paradigms suggest that most students find learning boring so they must be extrinsically goaded into educational activities.

Activities are intrinsically motivating if the individual engages in it for its own sake rather than in order to receive some external reward or avoid some external punishment. Words such as fun, interesting, captivating, and enjoyable can be more or less interchangeable with intrinsic motivation. The factors used to identify intrinsic motivation include challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation, and recognition.

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When overcoming a challenge, people are more motivated when they pursue goals with personal meaning and when attaining the goal is possible, but not necessarily certain. These goals may also relate to their self-esteem when performance feedback is available.

There are two types of curiosity which are the sensory and cognitive. Internal motivation increases when something in the physical environment grabs the individual’s attention (sensory curiosity). It also occurs when something about the activity stimulates the person to want to learn more (cognitive curiosity).

People want control over their environment and themselves and want to determine what they pursue. A choice is an essential element in feeling a sense of control. When choices are offered, individuals need to have the necessary information necessary for making a meaningful decision, not simply choosing between ambiguous options.

Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where people gain satisfaction from helping others. It also applies to cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others. Recognition from others also plays a part in intrinsic motivation. People enjoy having their accomplishments recognized by others, which can increase internal motivation.

Building Good Habits

When you truly want to do something, you’ll be more likely to focus on tasks relevant to creating that habit. You won’t want to waste your time doing things that will not get you closer to your final goal. This will help you focus on what will benefit you in the long run. Because you will enjoy what you are doing, you will not be looking for distractions or lose focus when they are around.

Chances are you would rather continue working on what you are doing than getting involved with a distraction that might come your way. You’ll also be more forgiving of your own mistakes, and more focused on learning and improving. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, and you may know that with each mistake you make, you have learned a lesson. If you are intrinsically motivated, you will be thankful for any progress you are able to make because you are enjoying it along the way.

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When you do achieve something that is an added bonus to the work that you have been able to get done. You didn’t start the job looking for anything specific in return, but with achievement comes the knowledge that you are on the right track. With your freshly gained confidence, you will feel like you don’t need other people to help you with your work, or other’s approval of your work.

As long as you are satisfied with what you are doing and understand you are doing work that is up to your own standards, you will be self-sufficient. Another fun fact from those animal behavior experiments: the more often behaviors are positively rewarded, the more likely they will occur.

Examples of Using Intrinsic Motivation

When you only focus on the outcome of what you’re doing and attach your worth to the end results, you will be less likely to apply your best efforts and try new approaches. When you equate your work with your performance instead of your effort, you stop yourself from enjoying the process. When your satisfaction is attached to your effort, the process becomes enjoyable, regardless of the outcome. In fact, defining your worth through your effort rather than your outcome will allow you to stop being so concerned with the outcome. While you still have goals that you want to accomplish, you are able to focus on the present moment and do your best during that task.

Examples In The Workplace

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Some individuals won’t need recognition when motivated intrinsically; however, recognition is a fundamental human need. When an employee is recognized for their good work, it confirms that their work is valued. In turn, this raises satisfaction and productivity. People like to know that they are valued within the company. Knowing your worth is an important part of staying motivated to keep doing the job you’re doing.

People are always looking up to leaders and those who came before them, so to be able to have the chance to be possibly seen as this type of innovator is motivating on a continuous basis. While you may earn a reward here or there, you will want to continue to do your best and never really consider yourself finished with your work. Leaders leave a positive impact on those who follow in their footsteps. They are known to be strong, smart, and visionaries in their areas of expertise. Being a leader is equated with success, so having the opportunity to be remembered as one is something that all productive people strive for.

Examples In The Classroom

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Knowledge breeds confidence and self-esteem. People want to be knowledgeable, so they can talk about a subject in an informed manner and carry on a conversation about a wide range of subjects.

Enjoyment of Curiosity & Effortful Thinking

If you have always wanted to learn something specific, like the history of China or how to be better in statistics, taking a class to address this curiosity is a great example of intrinsic motivation. As the class goes on, little by little you will be pushed forward in your knowledge. The thrill of tackling a challenge is a very motivating factor.

Critical thinking and having thoughtful conversations that go beyond everyday small talk is rewarding. This type of thinking is likely to make people remember how smart they are and motivate them to exercise their brains in ways that they don’t normally do. Effortful thinking is very rewarding when you are able to uncover new thoughts and ideas that you didn’t know you would be able to come up with.

To generate more visible enthusiasm, as well as compliance under less monitoring, try to give instructions in autonomy-supportive ways, vs. conventional, controlling ways. For example, when asking young students to clean up after an art project, understand that even children can understand why limits are being set.

Instead of giving an order like, “Don’t mix up the colors and don’t get any paint on the floor,” consider a more supportive approach, “It’s fun to slop the paint around, but we need to keep the materials and room nice for other children who will use them.” The child might not know the definition of respect and consideration, but that doesn’t mean they cannot understand the basic concepts.

This approach should carry over when providing corrective feedback. Don’t simply list off what the student is doing wrong, ask the student to reflect on their own performance. Giving students the first pass at corrective action deeply respects dignity and competence, and does not prevent friendly and constructive adult amendment of the student’s plans, along with a check-in for accountability.


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Understanding intrinsic motivation can lead to a life of productivity as you find ways to make a living by doing something that you already love. This will prevent you from taking a job that makes you unhappy just to get a paycheck.

Be conscious of what gives you intrinsic motivation, so you are able to live a happy life and enjoy what you are doing each day. Intrinsic motivation does not involve rewards such as praise or awards. Rather, the enjoyment that is experienced is enough to make one want to perform the activity in the future. While you might be doing something that could lead to winning awards, earning money, or getting a good grade, this is not the primary motivation.

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