Politics & Society

What Is Intrinsic Motivation? Understanding the Definition of Intrinsic Motivation and How to Use Intrinsic Motivation

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 3 min read

What gets us out of bed in the morning? What gets us to work? What gets us to do our hobbies? There are many theories of motivation, and one popular theory is called self-determination theory, which describes two types of motivation—extrinsic and intrinsic—that both function in our lives on a regular basis.


What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation means to be motivated by internal factors, such as enjoyment of the activity. Intrinsic motivation is the key to self-determination theory, which argues that human behavior is driven by a desire to grow and achieve fulfilment. In this theory, intrinsic motivation is characterized by self-determination rather than pressure, obligation, or restraint. People driven primarily by intrinsic motivators are considered to be more self-determined that people driven by extrinsic ones.

There are plenty of internal rewards that serve as intrinsic motivators. The most common are enjoyment, interest, or viewing the activity as an opportunity to grow and learn—as a real-world example, if you read an article on a difficult topic, like astrophysics, because you’re interested in the topic, that interest is a form of intrinsic motivation.

Why Is Intrinsic Motivation Important?

Intrinsic motivation is important because by engaging in activities that provide you with inherent satisfaction, you are contributing to your sense of well-being, which is a vital part of a human being’s psychological needs. In this way, internal motivation is critical to a person’s overall sense of motivation.

What Are the Limits of Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation also has its limits. One such limit is called the “overjustification effect,” which occurs when someone already intrinsically motivated to do a task is then given an extrinsic motivation. For example, if a person loved astrophysics (which would be intrinsic motivation), and then they enrolled in a class on astrophysics at school because of that love for the topic and were focused on getting a good grade (which is an extrinsic factor), something would happen: the student’s intrinsic motivation would diminish. In other words, they would feel less interested in reading about astrophysics because they enjoy it, and they would instead value the good grade the most. In this way, adding extrinsic motivation to a task you’re already intrinsically motivated to do can undermine your original interest in it.

Can You Use Intrinsic Motivation on Others?

Another limit of intrinsic motivation is that it’s difficult to intrinsically motivate others, because intrinsic rewards are internal and personal. However, there are several factors that social-psychology researchers have found can help create an intrinsically motivating environment:

  • Challenge. When goals aren’t easy to complete, you can be more personally motivated to complete them, because you know it will contribute to your self-esteem when you finish them.
  • Positive feedback. Positive feedback can offer a self-esteem boost for discouraged workers.
  • Curiosity. Your attention can be grabbed by the opportunity to learn new skills or concepts which will motivate you to continue learning.
  • Control. If workers are in control of what they do and how they do it, it appeals to their sense of independence and allows them to feel like they’re working for themselves, instead of for someone else.
  • Cooperation and competition. Working on teams can increase your intrinsic motivation because you get an internal reward for helping others, while being able to compare your performance to your peers’ can also offer opportunities for improvement and growth.
  • Recognition. It’s internally satisfying to have your work recognized by someone else, which can reinforce intrinsically motivated behavior.

What Is the Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

While intrinsic motivation is being motivated by internal factors, extrinsic motivation is being motivated by external rewards, such as receiving a reward or avoiding punishment. Extrinsic rewards can be physical, such as a paycheck, or intangible, such as public recognition, but they always come from outside, rather than inside. Learn more about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation here.

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