Guide to Understanding Intrinsic Motivation

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the name given to motivation driven by internal reward. In other words, when you do something without the need for material rewards or threats of punishment.

It’s when you do something because it is the right thing to do, without being told to. And when you engage in behavior simply for the joy of it.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of Motivation

Now that we have a basic understanding of what intrinsic motivation means, we can go deeper into what it can do for us. This brings us to the theory of self-determination.

No study of intrinsic motivation would be complete without the research done by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. These researchers dedicated many years of research to the advancement of knowledge about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

They developed the most widely accepted motivational theory to date, the self-determination theory.

In simple terms, this theory of human motivation is concerned with people's innate tendencies and psychological needs. It attempts to explain the motivation behind people's behavior in the absence of external influences.

Intrinsic Motivation Examples

To better understand this concept, consider these examples of intrinsic motivation.

  • Going to the gym because exercise makes you feel good about your body
  • Participating in sport because it is enjoyable, not just to win the game
  • Reading a book because it satisfies your curiosity about the subject
  • Working hard on a project for the sense of personal fulfillment and accomplishment you feel at its completion
  • Giving back to the community through unpaid volunteer work, because it brings you joy in helping others
  • Doing something thoughtful for your partner because you care about them and want to make them feel loved

These are just a few examples of intrinsic motivation. When you start to engage in some of them, more and more opportunities will arise in which you will be able to increase your intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivators

What is the main difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation – arises internally. Comes from within.

Extrinsic motivation – arises externally. Influenced by external factors.

Is one better than the other? No, they are both necessary and effective means of motivation.

But, intrinsic motivation has been linked to mental health benefits, such as a decrease in depression and anxiety, which in turn would lead to an increase in quality of life.

Higher intrinsic motivation has also been linked to physical health benefits such as less likelihood of illness. It may also lead to increased physical activity through exercise, which would positively affect weight loss and dietary habits.

How To Increase Intrinsic Motivation

Is possible to “increase” intrinsic motivation? Yes, it is. While it may seem that intrinsic motivation is innate, and comes more naturally to some than others, do not worry. Anyone can make the effort to increase their intrinsic motivation.

Let’s look at some of how you can increase your intrinsic motivation.

Be of Service to Your Community

When you help others in the absence of external rewards, something wonderful happens. The joy you bring to those you help is infectious. It makes you feel good. And that will spur you on to help others again in the future.

There are countless ways in which you can utilize your talents to uplift those in need. And if you do so not because of external recognition, but because it’s the right thing to do, you’re on the right path. This is one of the most effective ways to build your store of intrinsic motivation.

Recall Positive Experiences

The more positive you feel about your abilities, the easier it is to increase the intrinsic motivation to tackle the tasks that lie before you. How do you feel more positive? By thinking more positively.

Reflect on past experiences where you handled a situation well. Remember the times you excelled at work or in your studies. By shifting your focus to your successes, you will increase the intrinsic motivation to move on to future projects.

Stop Procrastinating

We are all guilty of this one. It is human nature to procrastinate to some degree. But if you are making a habit of it, remember that all habits, just as easily as they were learned, can be unlearned.

We procrastinate because our motivation is hindered or outweighed by demotivating factors like anxiety, fear of failure, or plain old exhaustion. It happens. But are you looking for excuses to procrastinate? Is it becoming a pattern?

Do not berate yourself for being human. Just decide to stop procrastinating and get on with the task at hand. The satisfaction and accomplishment you feel at the end will be worth it.

And once you have learned to make a habit of NOT procrastinating, you will find your intrinsic motivation soaring. And that nasty habit of procrastination will fade away.

Clarify Your Goals

When you understand what it is that you want, it will be a lot easier to go after it. Vague goals can only frustrate you and lead to a decline in motivation. And even all the extrinsic motivation in the world won’t help you then.

So to stay motivated, and increase intrinsic over extrinsic motivation, know what it is that you are working towards. And why you want it.

Keeping this at the forefront of your mind will charge you with feelings of positivity and anticipation. And the sense of completion, once your goals are achieved one by one, will only amplify your motivation to set and meet new goals.

Alter Your Perception

Being in control over your environment, or having the perception that your environment is under your control, is a powerful intrinsic motivator.

While you may have limited authority over your physical environment, you are in control of your mental one. Believe that you are the master of your own destiny, and you will be. Believe the opposite, and sadly the opposite will become true for you.

This is something that we all need to work on. But it is something that you have to address to stay motivated. Take charge of your thoughts and perceptions. Do not allow them to be hijacked by other people’s perceptions of you.

Practice Reinforcement

That leads to this next crucial point. Reinforcement. There are two kinds of reinforcement, positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement encourages a wanted pattern of behavior by offering a reward when that behavior is exhibited. Positive reinforcement was first described by B.F. Skinner in his now well-known theory of operant conditioning.

He observed by adding a reward (or praise) for a certain behavior, you can increase the occurrence of that behavior.

But Skinner also observed the converse: negative reinforcement. When an event or result that you wish to avoid, will be negated or minimized by the behavior, it is negatively reinforcing the behavior.

While both can be useful, you must understand the difference between the two, and how they relate to your daily life.

Allow Yourself Rewards and Praises

Positive reinforcement can take the form of praise, and this does not always have to come from others. Praise others when they behave appropriately in a situation. Praise them for performing well in an exam or at work. Praise your children for their good behavior.

In so doing, you will increase their intrinsic motivation for the future. Similarly, when you praise yourself for a job well done, you are practicing positive reinforcement.

“Negative” (aka Constructive) reinforcement can be just as effective. By doing something or behaving a certain way to avoid negative consequences, we are motivated by negative reinforcement.

But this is, at its core, constructive. And the praise that follows, in the absence of the negative result, will lead to an increase in intrinsic motivation for that activity henceforth.

An example of this is when your child tidies their room, to avoid you nagging them about it for the umpteenth time. The reinforcement at play was negative but constructive. And the praise or reward that follows will motivate them to do so again, without the need for nagging.

Closing Thoughts

To gain a deeper insight into our behavior, we need to understand our motivation.

Intrinsic motivation can be seen to be of greater long-term reward, as it holds many benefits for our mental and even physical well-being.

While intrinsic motivation may not seem as prevalent as extrinsic motivation, it can be developed. This is conditional on satisfying our feelings of competence, self-governance, and connection.

By focusing on internal rewards such as satisfaction and enjoyment, we can better motivate ourselves and others.


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