What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

When was the last time you did something just for the fun of it? Have you stopped to smell the roses recently, painted a picture, or had an extra-long bath just because? If so, you were acting under the influence of what psychologists call ‘intrinsic motivation’.

So, what is intrinsic motivation? How can you tell what’s driving you, and what are some ways to harness this for your benefit?

For the Love of It

Psychologists have been studying the concept of intrinsic motivation since the 1970s. In a nutshell, if you do something because you want to, it is intrinsically motivated. If you do something because of some external reason, like a reward or punishment, then it is extrinsically motivated.

So, if you are reading a book for pleasure or planting a garden because you love nature, you are doing it because of an internal desire. You aren’t doing it for praise, and you don’t expect an external reward. You are doing it purely for the enjoyment of it.

If intrinsic motivation is “art for art’s sake”, then extrinsic motivation is “because you said so”. If you read that book because it was a homework assignment, or you were trying to grow the biggest veg to win a competition, then you were doing it because of an external reason.

Go with the Flow

Have you ever noticed that time flies when you’re having fun? Then you might well have been in what psychologists call the ‘flow state’. This is when you are so focused on an enjoyable, intrinsically motivated, productive experience that you lose all notion of your physical needs or the passage of time.

Musicians get into the groove, sports stars get in the zone, and artists end up covered in paint and looking a bit confused as to how exactly it is 3am now. There are also plenty of parallels with religious and spiritual traditions, with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and certain yogic traditions all having similar concepts.

What’s the Use?

Intrinsic motivation is of the most value and interest to teachers, parents, and employers. In schools, studies have shown that students who feel intrinsically motivated to study perform better in the classroom. In the workplace, employers are always looking for better ways to improve the quality of their staff’s work. And every parent wants to know how to get their kids to brush their teeth without being reminded twice a day.

However, if someone doesn’t want to learn, you can’t force them to. Some employees just have a bad work ethic or lack the necessary skills. Certain kids will just never eat that broccoli. An understanding of intrinsic motivation is only really of use in the context of a wider knowledge of the matter at hand. It’s not going to solve all your problems, but it might help to solve some of them!

Self-Determination Theory

Now to get into the nitty-gritty. According to a paper written by two of the leading researchers in the field and printed in the American Psychologist journal in the year 2000, there are three building blocks to fostering intrinsic motivation: the needs for competency, autonomy, and relatedness.

If you are doing something that you are skilled in and feel like you can improve those skills, it will meet your need for competence. If you feel like your choices matter and that you have a say in what you are doing, then you will feel autonomy. If you are doing it in a supportive environment and understand why you are doing it, then your need for relatedness will be met.

If these needs are met by an activity, you are much more likely to be intrinsically motivated to do it again in the future. On the other side of the coin, the paper’s results indicated that students with teachers that were ‘controlling’ rather than autonomy-supporting showed less initiative and learned less effectively. Plus, we all know both the satisfaction of being good at something and the despair of not being able to get the hang of a new task.

For the Greater Good

How to encourage intrinsic motivation is one of the more hotly debated topics in the field. According to the authors of the 2000 paper, it helps to first recognize that there are two different types of external motivation.

They argue that there is a difference between a student who does their homework willingly, in the knowledge that it will go towards bettering their career, and one who does it to avoid a telling off. In the same vein, doing something unpleasant but necessary because you’ll feel better for having done it is a different thing to doing it because your partner asked you to.

If an action is done for some sort of external reward or punishment, at the behest of someone else, and doesn’t promote autonomy, they refer to it as ‘externally regulated’. If something is done with an eye towards feelings of personal pride and self-worth, or even to avoid feeling anxiety or guilt, they call it ‘introjected regulation’.

Learning to Love It

These findings suggest that there are two key areas to focus on when trying to encourage intrinsic motivation.

Firstly, address the natural needs for feeling skillful, in control, and connected. If a student or employee feels that what they are doing has value and their choices make a difference, and they feel supported in what they do, they will want to keep doing it.

Next, consider how you can foster in them an understanding of how what they are doing fits into the bigger picture. Encourage initiative-taking, and provide positive criticism and constructive feedback. If you can help them to see how what they are doing benefits them, then they will start to do it for themselves.

Art for Art’s Sake

So, to recap, what is intrinsic motivation? It’s the term psychologists use to refer to when you do something purely for the enjoyment of it. It is the opposite of extrinsic motivation, which is when you do something because of an external reason, like a reward or punishment. Teachers want to foster it in their students, employers that encourage it have happier workers, and kids with parents that understand it might just eat their broccoli after all.