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What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation involves a driving force behind behavior that emerges from within rather than as a result of external reward. In other words, it is a type of motivation that involves doing things because you find them naturally satisfying, or doing things for their own sake because you find them enjoyable.

Intrinsic motivation is usually contrasted with extrinsic motivation, in which behaviors are performed in order to gain some type of external reward.

How Intrinsic Motivation Works

Think about some of the things that you enjoy doing. For example, if you happen to enjoy running marathons, what is it that motivates you to compete in these grueling physical challenges.

While there are extrinsic rewards present such as trophies, ribbons, and recognition, chances are that the forces motivating you to drag yourself out of bed each morning and tie on your running shoes are intrinsic in nature. You run because the behavior itself is its own reward.

The benefit of intrinsic motivation is that it is typically a  much more powerful and enduring force than extrinsic motivation. Many of the activities you engage in on a regular basis are likely driven by such internal rewards. Hobbies such as gardening, painting, dancing, and crafting all bring enjoyment and happiness to those who participate in them.

This is not to say that intrinsically motivated behaviors are not without rewards. It’s just that these rewards are usually internal. When you help a friend, volunteer in your community, learn a new skill, or participate in religious activity, you are gaining something inside of yourself that acts as a reward. Feelings of satisfaction, a sense of progress, or the knowledge that you are helping others can help contribute to this sense of intrinsic motivation.

Factors That Play a Role

Over the years, researchers have proposed a number of different theories to explain the factors that contribute to intrinsic motivation. The best-known among these is the self-determination theory put forth by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.

According to Deci and Ryan’s theory, intrinsic motivation arises from three innate psychological needs:

  1. A need for competence
  2. A need to feel independent and autonomous
  3. A need to feel connected and related to others

In order to feel intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity, whether it involves an academic, athletic, or some other pursuit, people need to feel that the activity is challenging yet achievable and that they have the ability to make choices that will influence the outcome.

When people feel a sense of self-determination along with autonomy and competence, they will feel free to pursue the things that interest them.

In learning situations, these factors can all play a critical role in how motivated students are to study and achieve. If a student perceives the material as too difficult, his or her competence levels will be low. Even with adequate autonomy, the student may feel unmotivated to tackle the material because they see it as simply too difficult or impossible.

It is also important to remember that the balance between competence, autonomy, and relatedness is unique to the individual. What each person finds motivating can vary based on the balance of these influences, other characteristics of the environment, and individual factors.

In other words, what one person finds intrinsically motivating may leave another person feeling demotivated.

External Rewards Complicate Intrinsic Motivation

Researchers have found that offering extrinsic rewards for behaviors that people already find internally motivating can actually reduce intrinsic motivation. This tendency is known as the overjustification effect.

In one classic experiment, researchers found that when kids were given extrinsic rewards for playing with a toy that they already found intrinsically motivating, their motivation to engage in the activity actually decreased.

Such findings have important implications for school settings, where children are often encouraged to pursue tasks to gain rewards. The fear for educators is that, in some cases, rewarding kids might actually hurt their internal drive to learn.

Conditions of the Reward Matter

In research by Deci, intrinsic motivation was found to decrease when external rewards were dependent upon completing a task,  such as getting a dollar for every puzzle solved.

Motivation was unaffected, however, when rewards were not linked to task completion, such as getting rewarded for showing up.

Expectations Also Play a Role

Lepper and colleagues found that expectations of rewards can also play a role in how motivation is affected by external rewards. When students expected some type of extrinsic reward for participating in an activity, their motivation levels were more likely to decrease as a result.

When rewards were unexpected, there was no effect on intrinsic motivation levels.

Why Do Rewards Impact Intrinsic Motivation?

So why do external rewards sometimes have an effect on motivation? Because, like other variables that can affect patient levels, our words can convey important information about factors such as autonomy and competence.

External rewards can cause students to sometimes feel that they’re being pressured into doing something they don’t want to do, essentially depriving them of their independence.

These rewards can also make students feel as though they are doing something that they are not really capable of doing. Instead of doing a task because they feel competent and engaged, they are doing it simply to earn a reward. This does not lend itself to feelings of competence.

When people feel that they have lost their independence and confidence in a situation due to the presence of an external reward, their levels of intrinsic motivation may be affected.


Intrinsic motivation plays a critical role in the passion with which people pursue activities. When people feel motivated from within, they often feel not only more committed to completing a task, they also tend to take greater enjoyment in the activity.

Not all tasks are intrinsically motivating, however, which is why it is important to strike a balance between fostering an internal sense of motivation and using extrinsic rewards.


Deci EL. Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum Press; 1975.

Deci EL, Koestner R, Ryan RM. Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research. 2001;71(1):1-27. doi:10.3102/00346543071001001

Lepper MR, Greene D, Nisbett RE. Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1973;28(1):129-137. doi:10.1037/h0035519

Ryan RM, Deci EL. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 2000;25(1):54-67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020