What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 10, 2022
5 min read

In your everyday life, you may have different reasons for engaging in various activities. While doing some things may give you genuine joy and satisfaction, you may do others because of benefits you derive from them, such as pay. If the former is true — where you would happily do most of your tasks for free — you are driven by intrinsic motivation. Psychology experts call intrinsic motivation a higher quality of motivation and encourage developing it to be successful in life.

When you say you don't have the motivation to do something, you mean that you don't know why you should be doing it. This is what motivation is — the reason to act a certain way in order to achieve a goal. This applies to both humans and animals and can be simple as well as complex. Where it comes from matters, which is where intrinsic motivation comes into play.  

Simply put, intrinsic motivation is when your motivation to do something comes from inside. It starts when you have a genuine interest in a task or a subject. You can see an example in a toddler repeatedly trying to bite, grasp, squash, and throw the objects they encounter.

As an adult, you experience intrinsic motivation when you do a task for the sheer pleasure of doing it, to seek out new challenges, to experience something new, to learn, to explore, or to extend your potential.  This is why most people go on vacations, do gardening, play board games, watch movies, read novels, and pursue other entertaining tasks.

Being intrinsically motivated could increase your self-confidence, make you feel like you're making a difference, and give you a sense of purpose. Developing this type of motivation could help to boost your autonomy and creativity while making you feel more connected with your work.

The concept of intrinsic motivation arose in a 1985 study by University of Rochester psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. They developed the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation, which clashed with the dominant belief at the time that people performed tasks best when promised rewards.

Ryan and Deci theorized that intrinsic motivation came from the innate desire of people to grow and be better. By being motivated from the inside, you could not only increase your performance but have the best experience.

According to SDT, humans have three inborn psychological needs that motivate them from inside:

  • Autonomy. This refers to the feeling of being in control of what you're doing. Most people like to do things in which they have a say in how and when they do them.
  • Competence. This is the concept of acting in a way that aligns with your capabilities, such as your skills, experience, and knowledge. This means most people like doing things they feel they are capable of doing.  
  • Relatedness. This is the sense of connectedness and meaning you get from a task. People are most motivated to do something when they feel it fulfills a bigger purpose and makes them a part of a community.

Intrinsic motivation in people is the highest when all these three factors are met.

These are some examples of when you experience intrinsic motivation in your daily life:

  • Learning a new language not to pass a test but because you like experiencing new things
  • Spending time with people not to improve your social standing but because you like their company
  • Tidying your house because you like your surroundings neat and clean, not because you wish to impress your partner
  • Playing sports for fun, not to win a trophy
  • Exercising not to fit into a new dress but because you like changing your body's physical limits
  • Taking more responsibility at work not because you wish to impress your superiors but because you like to accomplish things
  • Creating art for the joy and peace it gives you rather than for the money you could make by selling it
  • Volunteering because it gives you a sense of fulfillment and not to make your resume look better

Extrinsic motivation is when you do a task for the external benefits you can gain from it. The desire for social approval or to make more money are two of the most common extrinsic reasons why adults do things. Among students, the most common extrinsic factors are the desires for better grades, to look better among peers, and to avoid failure or punishment.

For example, many students study not because they enjoy the subject but because they are afraid of being grounded by their parents. Research shows that children tend to lose engagement when they're only motivated extrinsically.

While intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are opposite in concept, they can occur together. This means you could feel motivated to do something for the joy of doing it as well as for the benefits you would gain from it. For example, you could learn a foreign language because you have always wanted to learn more about a particular country but also because it may help you get a promotion. 

Studies show that extrinsic motivation can be weaker than intrinsic motivation in some cases. This is because being intrinsically motivated is like being an engine that runs on itself and doesn't require fuel. However, in some situations, having extrinsic motivating factors is important. For example, when you need to finish a work task but don't feel like doing it, the fear of losing your job could be what keeps you going.

If you're wondering how to increase your intrinsic motivation, here are some tips:

  • Try to make your work fun so that you can be more engaged in it.
  • Challenge yourself by setting achievable goals. Do it for the chance to learn a new skill rather than for any external reward.
  • Find meaning in your work by focusing on the value it could give to others and the bigger purpose it serves.
  • Whenever you're feeling uninspired, try doing things you love or have always wanted to do.
  • Help people in need by supporting a friend or volunteering in an NGO.