Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

Eddie Johnson discusses what a player’s daily routine should be on game day during the NBA playoffs.

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

Jeff Stibel is vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist. He is the USA TODAY bestselling author of Breakpoint and Wired for Thought. (Photo: Jeff Stibel)

I have a friend, let’s call him Steve, who had an interesting thing happen a few months back. He was lying down with his newborn and his wife, and the baby instinctively rolled over and tried to breastfeed — on Steve!

The incident led my friend to reassess his weight. In the past two months, Steve has lost 65 pounds and is now in the best shape of his life.

Psychologists often talk about the benefits of intrinsic motivation and how powerful it is. By intrinsic, they mean a drive within you to do something versus doing something because of outside incentives. Joining a neighborhood softball team because you love the game is an example of being intrinsically motivated; joining because your wife complains you don’t get out enough is an example of extrinsic motivation. There is a laundry list of benefits to intrinsic motivation and a treasure trove of literature on how to utilize it.

But what about extrinsic motivation? It can either be to avoid punishment (like when you’re a kid and you clean your room so you won’t get grounded) or to gain an incentive (like working extra hard to meet a sales goal for a monthly bonus) and both have a really bad rap. Most psychologists agree that neither punishment nor incentive work as well as intrinsic motivation. The thinking is that unless you motivate yourself, there won’t be lasting effects. The answer, however, is more nuanced. If it weren’t, we would all be at a loss motivating ourselves and others. It turns out that extrinsic motivators are less effective, but when they remind us of our intrinsic values, they become a powerful force.

Steve’s experience is a perfect example of a good extrinsic motivator. A simple, subtle cue caused him to rethink things. Sure he was embarrassed, and probably wanted to avoid being mistaken for a breastfeeding mother again (i.e. punishment avoidance), but that wasn’t the most important motivating factor. Rather, it was a genuine nudge from someone Steve cared about, which reminded him of a stark reality: good health is necessary to ultimately spend more time with your kids. In short, he was reminded of an intrinsic principle.

Thinking of motivation like this gives us a greater sense of freedom and greater insight into why we do what we do. You don’t pick up your bath towel off the floor to avoid getting admonished by your spouse (remember, punishment avoidance is extrinsic motivation). Rather, you do it because keeping the peace is important to you (intrinsic motivation). You don’t show up to work on time to avoid being fired or because your boss told you to; rather, you do it because remaining gainfully employed and maintaining positive relations with your boss are values you hold dear.

When you break it down, all motivation is intrinsic. A child cleans his room because he values keeping his parents happy, even if he doesn’t necessarily value not living in a pigsty. A salesperson closes the sale to provide for her family, even if she doesn’t necessarily value the company’s sales goals. When we try to convince or persuade someone, what we should really be doing is awakening that person’s internal incentive systems. In business, we often use money because we assume that people are intrinsically driven by what money affords. Same with praise, promotions, compliments, and the like. The trick, if it can be called that, is to match the external motivating factor with something that will become a driving force internally.

If this seems disingenuous, that is because many people act disingenuously. It’s vital to make sure your motivation comes from both the heart and the head. The problem is that too many people do not think deeply enough about what others truly want and desire. We tend to focus on our own needs and goals versus motivating others based on their needs, and their goals. That yields extrinsic forces that rarely move people. What we are talking about is truly understanding what others want, and then offering an incentive that matches. At Dun & Bradstreet, we call these forces “genuine motivators.”

Next time you’re trying to convince someone to do something, don’t force him or her to connect the dots. Rather than offering a punishment or reward, go closer to the real intrinsic source. Appealing to someone’s internal motivations will always work more effectively than offering a random incentive. Don’t call your spouse fat; tell him you want to grow old together. Don’t tell an employee that she needs to work harder; tell her the time she spends at work is valued and will yield even greater success. Don’t offer your son money to clean his room; offer to take him to the store and buy him a record. Don’t criticize this article to my editor; tell her how much you value my opinion. on other subjects. In all cases, the desired outcome will be more likely and less painful.

On Tuesday, organizers of an upcoming benefit to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Harvey announced that singer Beyonce and actor George Clooney will headline a telethon which will air live on September 12th. USA TODAY

Jeff Stibel is vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist. He is the USA TODAY bestselling author of Breakpoint and Wired for Thought. Follow him on Twitter at @stibel.

Motivation is the desire to act in service of a goal. It’s the crucial element in setting and attaining our objectives.

Motivation is one of the driving forces behind human behavior. It fuels competition and sparks social connection. Its absence can lead to mental illnesses such as depression. Motivation encompasses the desire to continue striving toward meaning, purpose, and a life worth living.


  • Sources of Motivation
  • How to Set and Accomplish Goals
  • How to Increase Motivation
  • Diet, Exercise, and Finance Goals

Sources of Motivation

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

People often have multiple motives for engaging in any one behavior. Motivation might be extrinsic, whereby a person is inspired by outside forces—other people or rewards. Motivation can also be intrinsic, whereby the inspiration comes from within—the desire to improve at a certain activity. Intrinsic motivation tends to push people more forcefully, and the accomplishments are more fulfilling.

One framework used for understanding motivation is the hierarchy of needs proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. According to Maslow, humans are inherently motivated to better themselves and move toward expressing their full potential—self-actualization—by progressively encountering and satisfying several levels of need from the most fundamental, such as for food and safety, to higher-order needs for love, belonging, and self-esteem.

Eventually, Maslow extended the theory to include a need for self-transcendence: People reach the pinnacle of growth and find the highest meaning in life by attending to things beyond the self. Although the universality of Maslow’s theory has been challenged, many believe it captures fundamental truths about human motivation.

Where does motivation come from?

Motivation can stem from a variety of sources. People may be motivated by external incentives, such as the motivation to work for compensation, or internal enjoyment, such as the motivation to create artwork in one’s spare time. Other sources of motivation include curiosity, autonomy, validation of one’s identity and beliefs, creating a positive self-image, and the desire to avoid potential losses.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is a drive that comes purely from within; it’s not due to any anticipated reward, deadline, or outside pressure. For example, people who are intrinsically motivated to run do so because they love the feeling of running itself, and it’s an important part of their identity. Extrinsic motivation can increase motivation in the short term, but over time it can wear down or even backfire. By contrast, intrinsic motivation is powerful because it is integrated into identity and serves as a continuous source of motivation.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is any reason someone does work other than the joy of doing the work itself. Anything promised for completing the task or received as a result of completing the task are extrinsic motivators. An extrinsic motivator needs three elements to be successful, according to research by psychologist Victor Vroom: expectancy (believing that increased effort will lead to increased performance), instrumentality (believing that a better performance will be noticed and rewarded), and valence (wanting the reward that is promised).

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

Motivation can be defined as a reason (or reasons) which leads an individual to act in a certain way. The phenomenon of motivation isn’t limited to just humans, and occurs in every organism living. The reasons might not always be the same between two individuals acting in a certain way, but almost every action is directed by certain motivation.

[Related Reading: Motivational Cycle]

Motivation can be further divided into two different types.

Both kinds of motivation take part equally in a day-to-day life of an individual, and there are basic similarities and differences between the two. Let’s first discuss the differences.

Differences between Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation Vs Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation Extrinsic Motivation
The act of being motivated by internal factors to perform certain actions and behavior is called Intrinsic Motivation. Whenever an individual performs an action or behavior because the individual is affected by the eternal factors such as rewards or punishments, such form of motivation is called Extrinsic Motivation.
There is neither pressure nor any sort of reward for the actions you perform due to intrinsic motivation. You get rewarded as promised for the actions you perform due to extrinsic motivation.
The needs or causes that lead to intrinsic motivation are:

In the above example, there is a higher chance for a student to carry on playing guitar and reach stardom in the years to come.

In the above example, the chances of the student learning guitar efficiently is quite low, as the student only seeks an excuse to quit. Additionally, the student is most likely to give up playing guitar if the allowance money isn’t doubled as promised.

Similarities between Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Motivation

Both Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages. There is no saying which among them is more beneficial, as it largely depends on the situation and the individuals being motivated. The techniques applied are different, time duration required for each type of motivation to kick in is different, and so are the results. However, at the core, the major purpose of both kinds of motivation remains the same. The ultimate goal is to motivate an individual to get the job done.

In conclusion, both types of motivation are required for an organism leading the organism in completing the goals.

Identifying your internal and external motivators can help you be more efficient, feel more satisfied and achieve growth in your career. When it comes to what motivates us, it usually falls into one of two categories: intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when you’re motivated to complete a task because of personal goals or rewards, and extrinsic motivation is when you complete a task to either avoid punishment or earn a reward.

In this article, we will discuss the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the workplace with examples of each.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation involves performing a task because it’s personally rewarding to you. Extrinsic motivation involves completing a task or exhibiting a behavior because of outside causes such as avoiding punishment or receiving a reward. While both types of motivation are important, they have different effects on how you work.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is when you feel inspired or energized to complete a task because it is personally rewarding. In other words, you’re performing the activity because of some internal drive as opposed to an external reward of some kind. With intrinsic motivation, the behavior itself becomes the reward. Examples of intrinsic motivation include:

  • Cleaning your house because you like it tidy
  • Playing a game of soccer because you enjoy the sport
  • Reading a book about a subject that interests you
  • Putting together a puzzle because you like the challenge

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is when you are inspired to perform a task to either earn a reward or avoid punishment. In the case of extrinsic motivation, you’re not completing the task because you like it or find it satisfying. Instead, you’re completing it because you think you’ll avoid something unpleasant or you’ll get something in return. Examples of extrinsic motivation include:

  • Cleaning your house so your roommate doesn’t reprimand you
  • Playing a game of soccer because you want to win a trophy
  • Reading a book because you want to get a good grade in school
  • Putting together a puzzle because you want to win a prize

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: Which is best?

The main difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is that intrinsic motivation comes from within and extrinsic motivation comes from outside. The two types of motivation can, however, differ in their level of effectiveness.

Extrinsic motivation is beneficial in some cases. For example, working towards gaining a reward of some kind can be helpful when you need to complete a task you might normally find unpleasant.

Intrinsic motivation, however, is typically a more effective long-term method for achieving goals and completing tasks in a way that makes you feel fulfilled. While extrinsic motivation is helpful in certain situations, it may eventually lead to burn out or lose effectiveness over time.

Sometimes intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can work together to help you complete a task. As an example, if you have a job and you’re working to complete a project, you might be extrinsically motivated to finish it to earn a raise, and you might be intrinsically motivated to finish it because you enjoy the project and want to do a good job.

Using intrinsic motivation at work

There are many ways you can apply intrinsic motivation at work. For example, providing and receiving positive feedback is one of the best ways to increase motivation. If you’re interested in fostering intrinsic motivation among your team, consider the following:

For managers

To support intrinsic motivation among your team, be intentional with your feedback. Positive criticism that’s specific and empowering will help people understand your standards and expectations. Also, be sure you’re not giving an abundance of praise for work that’s not meaningful to your team.

For contributors

As a contributor, you should consistently tell managers when and how their feedback helps you to be motivated. Also, give them positive feedback when their guidance was particularly helpful. When you provide positive feedback to your managers about what motivates you, you’re extrinsically motivating them to continue managing you successfully.

Using extrinsic motivation at work

In some settings, extrinsic motivation is necessary for day-to-day work. Additionally, extrinsic rewards, such as bonuses, commissions, awards or prizes, are the only things that can promote interest in certain tasks. To successfully use extrinsic motivation, consider the following:

For managers

When you want to use extrinsic motivation as a manager, it’s important to offer rewards strategically. While external rewards can effectively motivate your team to take on a new challenge, learn a new skill or hit a quarterly goal, you should also make sure you’re giving them the resources necessary to take on projects and skills they’re passionate about.

For contributors

Work for the rewards that please you, but be aware of your limits and take breaks when you need them. Make sure you also set aside time to explore new skills and activities you are interested in for the sake of enjoyment or simply to learn something new.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important ways of driving behavior. When you understand the differences between the two types of motivation, you can also gain a better understanding of how to encourage people.

How to enjoy the process rather than struggle to reach a goal

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

What would you rather your motivation be dependent on; your own joy in the process, or external rewards? In this article, I’ll teach you about different types of motivation and what you can do to ensure your motivation doesn’t rely on anything but yourself.

Motivation is often divided into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The difference between the two is where the motivation originates.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within yourself. It is the motivation you get from simply enjoying something. Think of your favorite hobby. What drives you to do that? Chances are you do it because you’ve found something you enjoy and feel that you are or can be good at.

I’ve had many hobbies, and can at times be so motivated that I think of nothing else. That is the power of intrinsic motivation. It drives you to engage in an activity because you enjoy it.

Extrinsic motivation comes from external factors such as rewards, pleasing others, avoiding punishment, etc. An extrinsically motivated person engages in an activity as a means to an end. That is the type of motivation many people have for their job. They go to work because they get paid to be there.

It’s possible to be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. They exist on different spectrums and don’t necessarily have to affect each other. You can do your job because you want to get paid, but at the same time enjoy the work that you do.

Aside from the obvious conclusion that enjoying an activity is more enjoyable, researchers have found that intrinsic motivation can lead to better results.

Let’s think about this. Two people start playing the piano at the same time. One of them enjoys playing the piano and would rather do that than anything else. The other sees the money and fame that can be showered upon master pianists. When they hit obstacles in their road towards success, which of the two people do you think will be more discouraged when it takes longer than expected to make a living or become famous?

I would imagine that the person who is motivated by money and fame might start thinking that their goals are impossible, while the person who enjoys the piano will keep playing because regardless of obstacles, it’s still fun.

So if intrinsic motivation is simply based on how much you enjoy doing something, can we affect it at all? It turns out there are several ways to do this.

If you make yourself believe in your own capability to do something, you can end up being more motivated and enjoying it more. After all, it’s pretty hard to enjoy something you suck at. Based on Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, a good way to make yourself believe you can do something is by accomplishing tasks that are like what you want to achieve but smaller in scale.²

A good method for doing this is setting small goals that are challenging but have a high chance of accomplishment. Challenging yourself can increase intrinsic motivation.¹ If you want to have an Instagram account with 100k followers, you can increase self-efficacy by making one that reaches 1,000 followers. You’ll also learn a bunch along the way to reach your smaller goals.

If you can get curious about something, this can also lead to increased intrinsic motivation.¹ There are a lot of things you don’t know, regardless of the topic. By diving in and giving yourself a taste of what you don’t know, you can pique your curiosity about those topics, leading you to want to learn.

To take an example from my own life: in my recent efforts to build multiple streams of income, I have come across many methods and concepts by researching broadly on a surface level. I’ve then become curious about some of the methods, such as writing, or social media, thereby becoming motivated to learn more.

According to Schunk et al. (2014), if you are motivated because you enjoy doing something, rewarding yourself or getting rewarded can diminish that enjoyment, making your motivation dependent on these rewards. If that reward is then removed, you may find yourself no longer wanting to do an activity that you enjoyed before.

If an activity is rewarding enough in itself, be careful with rewarding yourself for it. You may find that you inadvertently start doing it for the reward rather than just enjoying it. I’ve noticed this when I had to do things for school that I would otherwise enjoy. Once someone told me I had to do it to get good grades, I didn’t find it enjoyable at all.

Think of something you want to accomplish. Can it be broken into smaller tasks, one of which can be done in the next half hour? This task could for example be research, organizing, planning, or a small practical job. Choose a task, and go work for 30 minutes to accomplish it. You might not finish the task, but you’ll have started. Now that you know you can start something, you’ll be more likely to want to do it again.

“But I don’t want to,” you might say. Nobody said motivation came easily. You’ll have to work for it. It’s worth it, though, because that initial motivation can snowball, and soon you might find it hard to stop working. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty nice problem to have.

1: Schunk, D. H., Meece, J. L., & Pintrich, P. R. (2014). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. Boston: Pearson

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

Free Book Preview: Unstoppable

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

With so many external factors contributing to your successes and failures, it’s hard to overstate the importance of utilizing every tool in your tool belt. You may not be able to control the traffic jam that causes you to be late to an interview, or an employer’s preference for a more seasoned applicant. But there is one factor to success that will always be in your control, and that’s motivation. More specifically, intrinsic motivation.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Our motivations in life can be broken down into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. This simply means that anything that motivates us must come from either an internal or external source. For example, if someone were to become a healthcare lawyer because of a desire to help others, they would be considered intrinsically motivated. However, if this same person were to become a healthcare lawyer solely for the fact that they are some of the highest-paid lawyers in the legal profession, they would be considered extrinsically motivated.

How to use intrinsic motivation:

Treat it as a starting point. It’s a lot simpler to reap the benefits of intrinsic motivation when the goals you set for yourself are shaped around it. Think about what already brings you a sense of personal gratification and go from there. Someone with a deep appreciation for nature will find success much easier working as a wildlife conservationist than a person with little or no interest in the topic. It’s certainly possible to be successful outside of these bounds, but letting your passions guide you will always give you an advantage.

Build a network. No matter what your intrinsic motivations are, rest assured there are others out there who share the same feelings. This provides a great opportunity to find likeminded individuals and build a community around a common interest. There are many networking sites online, such as LinkedIn and Reddit, where people go specifically to form these relationships. It’s easy to see how this would be beneficial in a business sense, but these communities are also great for casually bouncing ideas around and generally being a positive influence for those involved. Although much of the networking these days happens online, in-person community building offers an added personal touch that some might find appealing.

Change up your perspective. When you feel like you’re living a life that doesn’t align with your inner calling, a change of perspective might be all that’s needed. Take for instance an aspiring comedian waiting tables at a diner. She may feel like her job is a far cry from being on stage entertaining a large audience, but this is an illusion that can easily be broken. If the intrinsic motivation that compels her to a career in comedy is bringing joy to others through laughter, then her line of work is surprisingly befitting. Waiting tables provides her with a revolving door of customers with whom she can endlessly practice her witty banter and jokes. This is just one example. The point is that even though the current work you’re doing may not seem fulfilling on the surface, it’ll seem more so if you can reframe it as a necessary step to get where you want to be.

Be open to compromise. In pursuit of structuring your work and home life around the things you’re passionate about, there will be some necessary aspects you’d prefer weren’t involved. While it’d be nice if even the most menial tasks in life could give us a sense of purpose, this is usually not the case. Instead of feeling discouraged by this, realize that negatively perceived aspects will be present regardless of the endeavor you choose. And as long as you’re intrinsically motivated, these compromises will seem much smaller than they actually are.

Remind yourself regularly. Unfortunately, intrinsic motivation does not mean unwavering motivation. Everyone will have the inevitable off day when even getting out of bed can seem like a struggle. If ever you’re feeling tapped out, it’s important to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. This will prevent the personal satisfaction you get out of something from taking a back seat to feelings of stress or indifference. Even on a good day, a quick reminder to yourself can help things run a bit smoother.

Tapping into intrinsic motivation takes time

The process of learning where your sense of fulfillment comes from can involve some trial and error. Even after it has been established, it can take further effort to keep those thoughts at the forefront. The good news is that once you’re aware of your intrinsic motivations, things gradually become easier over time. By lifting the weight of meaninglessness and apathy, you allow the way forward to present itself.


“Curiosity is,” said writer Samuel L. Johnson, “in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

This quote is a great reminder that if we can get students curious and motivated to learn, we can set them up for a lifelong love of learning. And as a teacher, you have the power to help them find that passion for learning while they are young.

In this article, we’ll go over the difference between two types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—and why you should prioritize the former in your classroom. Then, we’ll provide you with a few tips and strategies for improving your students’ intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: What’s the Difference?

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)Before we explore how to motivate your students to learn, let’s go over the difference between two types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation occurs when students are engaged because of internal rewards, like a love of learning or interest in a subject.[3] These students learn to value learning for its own merits, regardless of any external factors. An example of intrinsic motivation is a student learning new vocabulary words because they love to read.

Extrinsic motivation, however, is learning because of external factors. Students may be motivated to learn to pass a test, to gain a reward, or to avoid a punishment. An example of extrinsic motivation is a student who is studying so their parents will not ground them for poor grades.

Generally, children lose engagement after being externally rewarded.[7] This suggests that extrinsic motivation is short-term and can lead students away from an inherent love of learning. As a teacher, you can prevent this by prioritizing intrinsically motivated learning in the classroom.

How to Motivate Students: Encourage Intrinsic Motivation

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)The value of choosing intrinsic motivation over its extrinsic counterpart is clear, but it’s not always easy to know where to start. When it comes to the classroom, there are a few strategies that you can use to make sure your students are interested in your class material and ready to learn.

Elementary-aged children are highly motivated when their teachers prioritize content mastery and understanding over high test scores.[2] Although tests can be a great way to measure student progress, try to focus on helping them understand the concepts they find difficult. As they spend more time learning, they will be better able to turn their weaknesses into strengths and gain an appreciation for learning that’s deeper than test scores.

Students are also more likely to be motivated if class material is relevant to their lives and involves their interests.[10] The best way to make your curriculum relevant to your students is to get to know them. Spend time understanding their needs and what makes them light up in a classroom setting. And allow some flexibility in your assignments so students can spend some time focusing on what they personally find interesting.

Research also suggests that online learning can encourage intrinsic motivation.[1] In part, this is because online learning often involves some level of independence—and independent learning is also linked to motivated students.[12] Consider either making some of your curriculum online or including some independent learning activities, like reading or personal project time.

And finally, gamification can have an engaging place in the classroom if intrinsic motivation is prioritized.[4] In a nutshell, gamification is the use of activities and rewards to teach different learning concepts. When an activity or reward is focused around intrinsic motivation—like giving a child a calculator as a prize for winning a math contest—student engagement improves.

7 Ways to Boost Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

Finding ways to motivate students—especially those who are currently unmotivated—can feel tough. But by knowing the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, you can make sure you’re taking the right steps to engage your students.

Here’s a quick list of 7 motivational activities and strategies you can use to improve your students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

  1. Get to know your students and their unique interests. When possible, structure your assignments in a way that can include their interests. If you have a student who loves dinosaurs, for example, write a math problem that involves counting cartoon dinosaurs.[8]
  2. Choose rewards that encourage intrinsic motivation. If you’re holding a reading contest, for example, you could make the prize a book of the child’s choice.
  3. When students have some autonomy over their assignments, they’re more likely to be motivated.[9] Consider trying blended learning, a strategy that involves a mix of independent learning and whole-class lessons.
  4. Include some curriculum that is relevant to your students’ lives and current needs to boost motivation.[10]
  5. Give your students positive feedback on their assignments to encourage them and to reinforce that they can do well.[11]
  6. Motivation is often enhanced through curiosity.[5] Ask your students what they are curious about and help them find something that interests them about an assignment.
  7. Share your love of a subject or concept with your students. If you show why you love learning, your students are more likely to catch your enthusiasm, too.

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Why do we do the things we do? What drives our behavior? Psychologists have proposed different ways of thinking about motivation, including looking at whether motivation arises from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) an individual.  

Researchers have found that each type has a different effect on a person’s behavior and pursuit of goals.   To better understand the influence of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on human behavior, it will help to learn how each type works.

Is It Extrinsic or Intrinsic Motivation?

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity because we want to earn a reward or avoid punishment.   You will engage in behavior not because you enjoy it or because you find it satisfying, but because you expect to get something in return or avoid something unpleasant.

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is when you engage in a behavior because you find it rewarding. You are performing an activity for its own sake rather than from the desire for some external reward. The behavior itself is its own reward.  

Participating in a sport to win awards

Cleaning your room to avoid being reprimanded by your parents

Competing in a contest to win a scholarship

Studying because you want to get a good grade

Participating in a sport because you find the activity enjoyable

Cleaning your room because you like tidying up

Solving a word puzzle because you find the challenge fun and exciting

Studying a subject you find fascinating

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: Which Is Best?

Extrinsic motivation arises from outside of the individual while intrinsic motivation comes from within. Research has shown that each type has a different effect on human behavior.  

Studies have demonstrated that offering excessive external rewards for an already internally rewarding behavior can reduce intrinsic motivation—a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect.

For example, in a 2008 study, children who were rewarded for playing with a toy they had already expressed interest in playing with became less interested in the item after being externally rewarded.  

This is not to suggest that extrinsic motivation is a bad thing—it can be beneficial in some situations. For example, extrinsic motivation can be particularly helpful when a person needs to complete a task that they find unpleasant.

Additionally, external rewards can:

  • Be a source of feedback to let people know when their performance has achieved a standard that is deserving of reinforcement
  • Induce interest and participation in an activity an individual was not initially interested in
  • Motivate people to acquire new skills or knowledge (once these early skills have been learned, people might become more intrinsically motivated to pursue an activity)

Extrinsic motivators should be avoided in situations where:

  • An individual already finds the activity intrinsically rewarding
  • Offering a reward might make a “play” activity seem more like “work”

Motivate a person to learn something new

Make a person more interested in an activity that they are not interested in

Provide feedback to people to let them know their performance is worthy of recognition

A person is already interested in the topic, task, or activity

Offering a reward would make the activity feel like “work” instead of “play”

When to Use Extrinsic Motivation

Most people assume that intrinsic motivation is best, but it is not always possible in every situation. Sometimes a person simply has no internal desire to engage in an activity. Offering excessive rewards can be problematic as well.

However, when they are used appropriately, extrinsic motivators can be a useful tool. For example, extrinsic motivation can get people to complete a work task or school assignment that they are not interested in.

Researchers have arrived at three primary conclusions regarding extrinsic rewards and their influence on intrinsic motivation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation will decrease when external rewards are given for completing a particular task or only doing minimal work.   If parents heap lavish praise on their child every time they complete a simple task, the child will become less intrinsically motivated to perform that task in the future.
  2. Praise can increase internal motivation. Researchers have found that offering positive praise and feedback when people do something better than others can improve intrinsic motivation.  
  3. Unexpected external rewards do not decrease intrinsic motivation.   If you get a good grade on a test because you enjoy learning about a subject and the teacher decides to reward you with a gift card to your favorite pizza place, your underlying motivation for learning about the subject will not be affected. However, rewarding in this situation needs to be done with caution because people will sometimes come to expect rewards.

How Do Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Motivation Influence Learning?

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation play a significant role in learning. Experts have argued that education’s traditional emphasis on external rewards (such as grades, report cards, and gold stars) undermines any existing intrinsic motivation that students might have.

Others have suggested that extrinsic motivators help students feel more competent in the classroom, which in turn enhances their intrinsic motivation.  

“A person’s interest often survives when a reward is used neither to bribe nor to control but to signal a job well done, as in a “most improved player” award. If a reward boosts your feeling of competence after doing good work, your enjoyment of the task may increase.

Rewards, rightly administered, can motivate high performance and creativity. And extrinsic rewards (such as scholarships, admissions, and jobs that often follow good grades) are here to stay.”

A Word From Verywell

Both extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation drive human behavior. There are several key differences between motivation that comes from external rewards and the kind that is driven by an individual’s genuine interest, including the influence of each type on a person’s behavior and the situations in which each type will be most effective.

Understanding how each type of motivation works and when it is likely to be useful can help people perform tasks (even when they do not want to) and improve their learning.

Dr. Felicia Bolden

  • August 11, 2020
  • Professional Development

Why intrinsic motivation is so powerful (and how to find it)

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

“The term intrinsic motivation refers to energizing behavior that comes from within an individual and develops due to an inherit interest in the activity at hand” (Chaudhuri, 2019). According to Gottfried (2019),

Academic intrinsic motivation is an enjoyment of school learning, and performance of activities for students’ own sake, in which pleasure is inherent in the activity itself. It is characterized by an orientation toward mastery; curiosity; persistence; task-endogeny; and the learning of challenging, difficult, and novel tasks. (p. 71)

When students believe in their learning interests and are able to perform academic tasks without external factors or promises of tangible objects or favors in exchange for work completed, they are intrinsically motivated. These students also have a sense of self-efficacy that propels them to achieve their goals. They are goal-oriented, self-driven, and normally do not work for instant validation from peers or educators. Intrinsically motivated students are usually high performers and can master personal and academic goals with minimal support or encouragement from others.

Students who are excited about learning and contribute to the classroom culture in a cheerful and compliant way are generally intrinsically motivated. Furthermore, they automatically take an interest in the curriculum without having to be prompted. Intrinsic students know their purpose for education and are determined to be successful. They are deep thinkers and problem solvers. Intrinsic students have a growth mindset and look forward to learning that is challenging and self-gratifying.

Benefits of Promoting Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation can be beneficial to both students and educators. The most powerful skillset an educator can have is to promote intrinsic motivation in all students. Some students arrive to school with the skillset, and others need to be taught. Everyone can experience intrinsic motivation when they give themselves permission to do so. When all learners exhibit intrinsic motivation, classrooms become safe havens for learning. Students experience success by collaborating and supporting their learning and the learning of their peers as well. Productivity increases and inevitably all learners contribute to the culture of the classroom through collective efficacy when intrinsic motivation is present. Students tend to perform academically well and thrive when they are intrinsically motivated.

Classrooms and schools with a high number of intrinsically motivated students and educators tend to have a positive culture and climate. Educators are able to focus on instructional strategies to best help students work at deeper and more complex levels, rather than dealing with nuisances of discipline issues, low performance, and the possibility of having a limited number of instructional resources. Professional development for staff is also more productive and conducive to increasing rigor for all learners. External barriers do not plague learning environments when there is a high level of intrinsically motivated learners.

Strategies for Promoting Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

Educators must intentionally create learning environments that encourage and promote intrinsically motivated students. Allowing students to take risks and explore learning through the natural process of inquiry yields a safety net of trust. According to Purnomo, Kurniawan, & Aristin (2019), “Intrinsic motivation can be enhanced in the classroom by providing a challenge, curiosity, fantasy, and control” (p. 263). Educators should allow student choice to maximize learning potential based on their interests.

Administering an interest survey is a great way to identify factors that directly provoke intrinsic motivation in students. Then the data can be used to plan effective instruction and to improve the classroom learning environment. For example, if educators know of a student who wants to be an astronaut, and his or her eyes light up every time space is mentioned, it is the educator’s duty to find resources and literature about space to continue to help the student exude intrinsic motivation when completing tasks.

According to Purnomo, Kurniawan, & Aristin (2018), some additional strategies educators can use to increase intrinsic motivation of learners are to:

  • Challenge learners by assigning tasks at a gradual difficulty level from very easy to very difficult,
  • Use the students’ own personal experiences to arouse curiosity,
  • Use fantasy/imagination as a strategy to stimulate the thinking power of learners beyond the current conditions,
  • Improve learners to become active participants in learning,
  • Provide assessment feedback and use praise that rewards effort and improvement, and
  • Be supportive and attentive to learners. (p. 263)

Educators who take the time to know students and acknowledge the factors that intrinsically motivate them contribute to their overall success in the classroom.


Intrinsic motivation is important to the overall well being of all students, and they need to feel the autonomy of having ownership of their overall learning goals (Blankenstien, Saab, van der Rijst, Danel, Bakker-van den Berg, & van den Broek, 2019). Students are most creative when they can tap into their personal skillsets and apply them to new learning. Students who are intrinsically motivated tend to maximize their learning to their fullest potential and are highly innovative. Implications for further studies are to determine how intrinsic motivation affects students in different regions and educational settings, and to explore how intrinsic motivation directly or indirectly impacts teacher performance.