What is Intrinsic Motivation? | Definition, Tips, and Examples

Intrinsic Motivation Intro

Intrinsic motivation drives behaviors that are satisfying in and of themselves.

If you are intrinsically motivated about your work, chances are you will spend less time complaining about your boss, your colleagues, or even your pay, and more time actually enjoying yourself doing the work.

Intrinsic motivation is important because it teaches us to do the work we actually enjoy doing and not because we are tempted by money or recognition.

That’s why intrinsic motivation can be such a limitless reservoir of energy that can actually make us more present, happier, and internally fulfilled.


What is Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to do certain things because they are enjoyable to do. Their reward is inherent to the activity itself and not due to some external factors, i.e. money, perks, or recognition.

When we engage in such activities, we are guided by intrinsic motivation. When was the last time you did something just for the sake of it?

That could be anything from playing sports, engaging in your hobby, or working on some skill.

If your activities bring you joy because you lose yourself in them, then you are intrinsically motivated to do them.

Students that are intrinsically motivated to study find joy in exploring their curiosity. They take on challenging projects not because they have to, but because they enjoy the process of learning.

Students that are intrinsically motivated are not only academically successful, but they are also happier.

On the other hand, students who are extrinsically motivated, i.e. want to gain reward or avoid punishment, study only for the sake of avoiding failure in exam, meeting deadlines, and getting some sort of praise from parents, peers, or teachers.

Their results are mediocre at best and unfulfilling at worse.

Intrinsic motivation makes us pursue the things that we actually enjoy doing because we feel internally fulfilled by them. They make us experience the state of flow.

Motivation to Burnout

Who Developed the Intrinsic Motivation Theory?

Previously, it was believed that incentivizing was the best strategy to make humans work.

But when Richard Ryan and Edward Deci came up with their 1985 book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, it changed the whole thinking about motivation.

Deci did an experiment in the early 1970s where he had two groups of students solve a puzzle. One of the groups was rewarded at the end of solving the puzzle, while the other was not.

When they were made to solve the puzzle again, this time without the reward, the group that was paid earlier showed signs of disinterest, and the group that was not paid kept at the puzzle for longer.

Deci concluded that the group that was paid after their first session lost their intrinsic motivation because of the involvement of an external reward.

This is sometimes called the Overjustification Effect, where in apparent effort to reinforce intrinsic motivation, an external reward is added, but, far from reinforcing motivation, it has the opposite effect.

The most compelling reason for this is that when external rewards are added, the activity starts to feel like a chore.

In their book, Ryan and Deci argued that offering rewards and instilling fear with punishments were not the only strategies that motivated humans to work, in fact, there were better strategies to elicit good behavior.

They developed intrinsic motivation theory to counteract the notion of reward and punishment motivation.

If a behavior is intrinsically motivated it is far more fulfilling and satisfying.

Regain motivation after burnout

Intrinsic Motivation Examples

Here are few examples of behavior or activities that are intrinsically motivated:

  • Going for a hike or a walk in nature just because you love nature and want to experience it up close.
  • Playing sports for the fun of it.
  • Helping the poor and volunteering in services that help the poor carries no material advantage for you, but the spiritual fulfillment you experience afterwards is the reward in and of itself.
  • Performing challenging tasks because you love to challenge yourself.
  • Learning a new skill.
  • Being in a healthy competition, too, inspires us to enjoy the process of progressing in our skills.
  • Exploring your curiosity in any field of knowledge is intrinsically satisfying not only when you arrive at answers, but also when you are engaged in wrestling with the problems.
  • Enjoying a good conversation – without any intentions of any rewards.
  • Being kind to others because it makes you feel good and not because you are thinking, “if I do this now, then later, he/she will do that for me.” That would be manipulative and not intrinsically motivated.
Creativity and Cognition

Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation

The opposite of intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation.

Now, you should keep in mind that there are many shades of grey in between the two, and that there are some activities that can be guided by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

That being said, here, we would like to give a black and white comparison just for the sake of understanding.

Intrinsic MotivationExtrinsic Motivation
Focused on the processFocused on external goals and rewards and avoiding punishment
Guided by enjoyment, fulfillment,
and internal satisfaction
Guided by exterior motives and feelings play a secondary role – if any role at all
Makes you more present and in the zoneCan drive productivity, but can be restricting
Makes you work creativelyConstrains you within parameters
You enjoy doing the workCan feel like a chore

That table is a good starting point to understand intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

However, as mentioned before, there are many shades of grey in between, i.e. internalized extrinsic motivation, which is where a person has internalized certain extrinsic rewards as internal.

Consider the intrinsic motivation example of a student. In order to get good grades, she has to work hard, but working hard can in and of itself bring her joy as well.

Deep Work

How Do You Get Intrinsic Motivation?

The power of intrinsic motivation is evident from the discussion above.

It can create fulfillment in our work, make us happier employees and students, and it can make us stay in the moment and enjoy life even while we do something ostensibly boring like study.

Therefore, people from educational and business backgrounds take a keen interest in intrinsic motivation, and how it can be used to ratchet up productivity, improve grades, increase learning ability, develop interest, and drive employee satisfaction.

So how can we develop intrinsic motivation?

According to the Self-determination theory of Ryan and Deci, there are three basic psychological needs an individual strives to satisfy: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Based on the activities we undertake, we either satisfy these psychological needs or we starve them.

And striving towards fulfilling all of them is an attempt at becoming a self-determined individual. Now, let’s look at the three psychological needs one by one.

1. Autonomy

In intrinsic motivation theory and self-determination theory, autonomy refers to the extent to which one can exert influence over life and the course that it takes.


2. Competence

Competence is closely related to your sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy. How capable do you think you are to perform a task?


3. Relatedness

It is related to having a sense of belonging.

So in light of the three psychological needs identified by Ryan and Deci, we can say that the following are some of the ways that can be used to enhance intrinsic motivation.

Greater influence over others

4. Healthy Competition

A healthy amount of competition can be good to make people motivated to outperform their peers and themselves.


5. Challenge

Challenges are good. They make us give 100% each time.

But the challenge has to fall within our level of competence; otherwise, it can make you feel that you are way in over your head.

Accept Challenges

6. Encouragement

A word of encouragement coming from a person we look up to can make our day.

The effect can make us want to do more because we love how it feels to be encouraged and recognized.

It satisfies our psychological need for relatedness.

Inspire Others

7. Influence

Do you have a self-perceived level of control over what’s happening in your life and work?

If so then you are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation.

Self control

8. Recognition

Being recognized by your peers and bosses for something that you did well on the job is part of the psychological need for belonging.

A pat on the back leads to feelings of accomplishment.

Recognition, Rewards, Award, Goal, Success, High Five

9. Teamwork

Intrinsic motivation is increased when you perceive that you are part of a team that is striving to achieve something bigger.

Real vs Fake Guru

What are the Advantages of Intrinsic Motivation?

As mentioned earlier, intrinsic motivation has clear implications in the educational and business environments.

Learning and productivity among students and employees can be enhanced by making them invested in work or study so that they identify their success in terms of internal factors and external rewards.

Students and employees who are intrinsically motivated will always put in their best effort in academics and work, respectively.

Here are some of the advantages that can be realized from intrinsic motivation:

  • Willing to perform the tasks wholeheartedly
  • Less focus on the material achievements and more focus on the process
  • A great way to learn new skills or even acquire a new language
  • Guided by external factors can be draining. Intrinsic motivation is a never-ending reservoir of motivation
  • Intrinsic motivation is going to make you feel happy and fulfilled
  • It is the road towards self-determination: i.e. exerting control over your life, having feelings of competence and belonging.
  • Intrinsic motivation makes us do things that truly make us human, i.e. volunteering to help the needy and poor.

Last, but definitely not the least, the biggest advantage that could be realized from intrinsic motivation is related to creativity. But there is a caveat to that statement.

Although, the jury is still out on the final verdict on this one, according to this study, there is evidence to show that under the right conditions (meaning external rewards) intrinsic motivation can be reinforced to let out the creative juices flowing.

Why is Self Confidence Important?

Final Remarks

Intrinsic motivation – as discussed in the previous sections – serves to satisfy some basic psychological needs.

Therefore, to be mentally strong and healthy, we should prioritize engaging in activities that can satisfy those needs.

Satisfying these psychological needs will make us feel happy, fulfilled, and internally rewarded.

It could be a hobby, sports, or even our work and study, but the important thing is that if we are intrinsically motivated, we will not only perform better, but we will also be happier for it.

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