What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation involves performing an action because you enjoy it, not because you are trying to earn a reward. Blend Images - Moxie Productions/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishments.

Consider for a moment your motivation for reading this article.

If you are reading it because you have an interest in psychology and simply want to know more about the topic of motivation, then you are acting based upon intrinsic motivation. If, however, you are reading this because you have to learn the information for a class so you can avoid getting a bad grade, then you are acting based upon extrinsic motivation.

When was the last time you did something just for the enjoyment of the activity itself? Some examples might include painting a picture, playing a game, writing a story, and reading a book.

When you pursue an activity simply for enjoyment, you are doing so doing so because you are intrinsically motivated. Your motivations for engaging in the behavior arise entirely for within rather than out of a desire to gain some type of external reward such as prizes, money or acclaim.

Of course, that isn't to say that intrinsically motivated behaviors are without their own rewards.

Instead, these rewards involve creating positive emotions within the individual. Activities can generate such feelings when they give people a sense of meaning (like participating in volunteer or church events), a sense of progress (seeing that your work is accomplishing something positive), or competence (learning something new or becoming more skilled at a task).

Definitions of Intrinsic Motivation

  • "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."
    (Coon & Mitterer, 2010)
  • "Intrinsic motivation refers to the reason why we perform certain activities for inherent satisfaction or pleasure; you might say performing one of these activities is reinforcing in-and-of itself."
    (Brown, 2007)

Intrinsic Rewards and Motivation

Researchers have discovered that offering external rewards or reinforcements for an already internally rewarding activity can actually make the activity less intrinsically rewarding, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect. Why?

"A person's intrinsic enjoyment of an activity provides sufficient justification for their behavior," explains author Richard A Griggs in his text Psychology: A Concise Introduction. "With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, the person may perceive the task as overjustified and then attempt to understand their true motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity."

Experts also suggest that people are more creative when they are intrinsically motivated. In work settings, productivity can be increased by using extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, but the actual quality of the work performed is influenced by intrinsic factors. If you are doing something that you find rewarding, interesting, and challenging, you are more likely to come up with novel ideas and creative solutions.

Motivation to Learn

Intrinsic motivation is an important topic in education, as 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.

Malone and Lepper (1987) suggest that this need not be the case and identify several different ways to make learning environments that are intrinsically rewarding.

Malone and Lepper define activities as intrinsically motivating if "people engage in it for its own sake, rather than in order to receive some external reward or avoid some external punishment. We use the words fun, interesting, captivating, enjoyable, and intrinsically motivating all more or less interchangeably to describe such activities."

The factors that they identify as increasing intrinsic motivation are:

  • Challenge: People are more motivated when they pursue goals that have personal meaning, that relate to their self-esteem when performance feedback is available, and when attaining the goal is possible but not necessarily certain.
  • Curiosity: Internal motivation is increased when something in the physical environment grabs the individual's attention (sensory curiosity) and when something about the activity stimulates the person to want to learn more (cognitive curiosity).
  • Control: People want control over themselves and their environments and want to determine what they pursue.
  • Cooperation and Competition: Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where people gain satisfaction from helping others and in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others.
  • Recognition: People enjoy having their accomplishment recognized by others, which can increase internal motivation.

Observations

Experts have noted that offering unnecessary rewards can have unexpected costs. While we like to think that offering a reward will improve a person's motivation, interest, and performance, this isn't always the case.

For example, when children are rewarded for playing with toys that they already enjoy playing with, their motivation and enjoyment of those toys actually decreases.

It is important to note, however, that a number of factors can influence whether intrinsic motivation is increased or decreased by external rewards. Salience or how significant the event itself is often plays a critical role.

An athlete competing in a sporting event might view the winner's prize as confirming the winner's competence and exceptionalism. On the other hand, some athletes might view the same prize as a sort of bribe or coercion. How the individual views the salience of different characteristics of the event impacts whether the reward will affect a person's intrinsic motivation for participating in that activity.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

References

Brown, L. V. (2007). Psychology of motivation. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior with concept maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Griggs, R. A. (2010). Psychology: A concise introduction. New York: Worth Publishers.

Horn, T. S. (2008). Advances in sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Malone, T. W. & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In R. E. Snow & M. J. Farr (Eds.), Aptitude, learning, and instruction: III. Conative and affective process analysis. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Myers, D. (2005). Exploring psychology, Sixth edition in modules. New York: Worth Publishers.

Continue Reading