July 20, 2017

Intrinsic Motivation Explained

Intrinsic motivation is the act of doing something or performing an activity for its inherent satisfaction. But there's more to it. Find out what the experts have to say, what key factors drive intrinsic motivation, the value of what it can do for you, and learn about the power behind it.

Experts define intrinsic motivation as the act of doing something or performing an activity for its inherent satisfaction. In other words, think of it as a feeling we experience. Particularly when compelled to act upon a situation simply for the enjoyment and/or challenge of it. Intrinsically motivating activities such as hobbies are great examples. For instance, when people collect stamps or build model ships, they aren’t doing so to get rich, to attract members of the opposite sex, or for any other type of material reward for that matter. Same goes for sports and other types of physical activities—whether it be football, hockey, rock climbing, etc. Intrinsically motivated people, essentially, engage in activities for the sheer enjoyment of it!

In this post, you'll learn; The definitions of intrinsic motivation. Important distinctions. The different types of intrinsic motivation factors. A brief look at the science behind intrinsic motivation. The different types of intrinsic rewards. And, the value and power of intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation Definitions

Across the various types of research conducted and published on the topic of intrinsic motivation, various definitions exist defining what intrinsic motivation is. Amongst the many definitions, both research and practice the three below as some of the most popular definitions of intrinsic motivation.
  • The self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one's capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge.1
  • The doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence.2
  • It's motivation that is animated by personal enjoyment, interest, or pleasure.3

    Intrinsic Motivation Explained

    Intrinsic motivation occurs when people engage in particular activities and behaviors for the sake of doing them. In other words, people who are intrinsically motivated attempt to excel at something, not for money or for the fear of punishment but, because they are deeply interested in it, gain pleasure from doing it, and/or simply enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it. Unlike extrinsic rewards, such as money and status, intrinsic rewards essentially come from within. It's the type of drive we all need to make great achievements. Just ask Pat Riley, one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time.


    But it doesn't stop with great coaches. Professional athletes also understand the undercurrents of intrinsic motivation. Take for example football sensation Lionel Messi who once spoke out telling the media that money for him is not a motivating factor.
    "Money doesn't thrill me or make me play better because there are benefits to being wealthy. I'm just happy with a ball at my feet. My motivation comes from playing the game I love. If I wasn't paid to be a professional footballer I would willingly play for nothing."

    Important Distinctions

    People often get mixed up between the difference of "intrinsic motivation" and "internal motivation." To understand the difference, it's important to remember that it's the kind of reward rather than the "location or origin" of intrinsic motivation which makes the difference. A key distinction which separates it from other types of motivators explains Pierre-Yves Oudeyer and Frederic Kaplan5. In their research paper, they explain that there's an important and distinct difference between extrinsic, external, intrinsic, and internal motivation.

    For example, brushing our teeth because we want to avoid a lecture from our dentist about oral hygiene means we're extrinsically and externally motivated. On the other hand, brushing our teeth to have healthy clean teeth in the future—means we're internally motivated. However, if we brush our teeth because we know it's good for us and we enjoy it, then, we're intrinsically motivated.

    From the Experts

    Coaches, psychologists, and other experts in the area of motivational psychology agree that—intrinsically motivating activities typically generate positive feelings. This is because they provide a sense of meaning, a sense of progress, and/or a sense of competence. They understand that, for teachers and their students or, for employers and their employees, it's about increasing engagement as opposed to compliance. In their article review, Deci and Ryan1 praise intrinsic motivation for its ability to engender “high-quality learning and creativity” and call it an “important construct, reflecting the natural human propensity to learn and assimilate.” In his popular TED talk, Dan Pink, one of the world's leading business thinkers, supports these findings by explaining the complexity behind motivation and how we can all better understand it.

    Intrinsic Motivation Factors

    In their 2011 motivation study, Çınar, Bektaş, and Aslan state that "motivation is a multidimensional framework." They explain it's usually a combination of different factors which motivate people. While both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation factors can simultaneously motivate people, several intrinsic factors also help to promote intrinsic motivation. Between Dan Pink4 and researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan2, several psychological needs, which are common to all people, form the following intrinsic motivational factors. They are Competence (succeeding in what you do), Autonomy (being in control of your life), Mastery (having a sense of growth and achievement), Purpose (having a sense of meaning), and Relatedness (connecting with others).

    Factor Description
    Competence To promote self-esteem, enjoyment, satisfaction.
    Autonomy To provide a sense of control, responsibility, creativity, freedom, choice, and "a desire to be self-directed4."
    Mastery Presenting opportunities for learning, curiosity, challenge, achievement, growth, interest, development.
    Purpose Directed at meaning, altruism, and the "why."
    Relatedness Having a sense of belonging, love, cooperation, recognition, connection, status.

    The Science Behind Intrinsic Motivation

    Research shows that intrinsic motivation often leads to personal growth by encouraging people to seek out challenges and exercise personal and/or professional skills. Research studies also show that high intrinsic motivation orientation is a key indicator of high self-determination2 (a person's ability to control his or her life).

    Compiling a variety of studies, Kevin McGrew, Ph.D., determined that early research looked upon intrinsic motivation as “situation-specific and alterable” rather than “trait-like in nature.” However, researchers are now treating intrinsic motivation as less of a situation-specific state and more of a basic and permanent human trait. A trait that exists in all people regardless of their specific interests and opportunities.

    The Value of Intrinsic Motivation

    In addition to fulfilling essential intellectual and emotional needs, professional settings use intrinsic motivation to help boost productivity and promote a positive workplace. As the organization Changing Minds states, “if you can get someone to believe in an idea or align their values with what you want, then you have set very powerful motivation in place.” For example, giving employees work they can perform independently and at which they are competent in can positively motivate them

    Studies in the area of sports motivation, also report that intrinsic motivation can greatly improve the performance and accomplishments of athletes. According to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, if "athletes experience competence and success due to their own actions and skills" they will be "more satisfied and more likely to continue participating." This is true even when athletes are simultaneously receiving extrinsic rewards.

    See alsoHow to Motivate Yourself and KEEP Yourself Motivated.

    The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

    Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force that can encourage us to learn, experience new things, and grow. What has (and hasn't) motivated you in the past, has evidently got you to where you are today. And, will continue to shape who you become in the future. Think about it, why do human beings thirst for success and constantly strive to improve? What drives successful people to do the exceptional things they do? How often do you pause to think about your inner motivations and the ways in which you operate?

    Learn to identify and understand what motivates you from the inside. Because, if we can all do this, we may all have a better chance at happiness and success. By concentrating on the incredible and wide-ranging influence of intrinsic motivation, you'll not only better yourself but inspire others to better themselves as well. And helping others is always a reward in itself!

    Remember, intrinsic motivation isn't some special ability only a few possess—it's something we all have. Find what intrinsically motivates you and use it to help motivate you in other areas of your life. In the words of Sir Edmund Hillary;
    "It all comes down to motivation. If you really want to do something, you will work hard for it."
    So go out there, and use what intrinsically motivates you—to your advantage.


    1. Deci, Edward. L., and Ryan, Richard. M. "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions." Contemporary Educational Psychology (2000).
    2. Deci, Edward. L., and Ryan, Richard. M. "Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being." American Psychologist (2000).
    3. Lai, Emily R. "Motivation: A Literature Review." Pearson (2011).
    4. The puzzle of motivation. Perf. Dan Pink. TED.
    5. Oudeyer, Pierre-Yves, and Frederic Kaplan. "How can we define intrinsic motivation?" INRIA Bordeaux Sud-Ouest (2007).