Intrinsic motivation is the act of doing something without any obvious external rewards. You do it because it’s enjoyable and interesting, rather than because of an outside incentive or pressure to do it, such as a reward or deadline.

An example of intrinsic motivation would be reading a book because you enjoy reading and have an interest in the story or subject, rather than reading because you have to write a report on it to pass a class.

There have been a number of different proposed theories to explain intrinsic motivation and how it works. Some experts believe that all behavior is driven by external reward, such as money, status, or food. In intrinsically motivated behaviors, the reward is the activity itself.

The most recognized theory of intrinsic motivation was first based on people’s needs and drives. Hunger, thirst, and sex are biological needs that we’re driven to pursue in order to live and be healthy.

Just like these biological needs, people also have psychological needs that must be satisfied in order to develop and thrive. These include the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Along with satisfying these underlying psychological needs, intrinsic motivation also involves seeking out and engaging in activities that we find challenging, interesting, and internally rewarding without the prospect of any external reward.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within, while extrinsic motivation arises from outside. When you’re intrinsically motivated, you engage in an activity solely because you enjoy it and get personal satisfaction from it.

When you’re extrinsically motivated, you do something in order to gain an external reward. This can mean getting something in return, such as money, or avoiding getting into trouble, such as losing your job.

MotivationGoals
IntrinsicYou do the activity because it’s internally rewarding. You may do it because it’s fun, enjoyable, and satisfying.Goals come from within and the outcomes satisfy your basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
ExtrinsicYou do the activity in order to get an external reward in return.Goals are focused on an outcome and don’t satisfy your basic psychological needs. Goals involve external gains, such as money, fame, power, or avoiding consequences.

You’ve likely experienced examples of intrinsic motivation throughout your entire life without giving it much thought.

Some examples of intrinsic motivation are:

  • participating in a sport because it’s fun and you enjoy it rather than doing it to win an award
  • learning a new language because you like experiencing new things, not because your job requires it
  • spending time with someone because you enjoy their company and not because they can further your social standing
  • cleaning because you enjoy a tidy space rather than doing it to avoid making your spouse angry
  • playing cards because you enjoy the challenge instead of playing to win money
  • exercising because you enjoy physically challenging your body instead of doing it to lose weight or fit into an outfit
  • volunteering because you feel content and fulfilled rather than needing it to meet a school or work requirement
  • going for a run because you find it relaxing or are trying to beat a personal record, not to win a competition
  • taking on more responsibility at work because you enjoy being challenged and feeling accomplished, rather than to get a raise or promotion
  • painting a picture because you feel calm and happy when you paint rather than selling your art to make money

Everyone’s different and that includes what motivates us and our perspectives of rewards. Some people are more intrinsically motivated by a task while another person sees the same activity extrinsically.

Both can be effective, but research suggests that extrinsic rewards should be used sparingly because of the overjustification effect. Extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation when used in certain situations or used too often. The rewards may lose their value when you reward behavior that was already intrinsically motivating. Some people also perceive extrinsic reinforcement as coercion or bribery.

The overjustification effect has inspired an entire field of study that focuses on students and how to help them reach their full potential. Though experts are divided on whether extrinsic rewards have a beneficial or negative effect on intrinsic motivation, a recent study showed that rewards may actually encourage intrinsic motivation when given early in a task.

Researchers examined how reward timing influenced intrinsic motivation. They found that giving an immediate bonus for working on a task, rather than waiting until the task was completed, increased interest and enjoyment in it. Getting an earlier bonus increased motivation and persistence in the activity that continued even after the award was removed.

Understanding the factors that promote intrinsic motivation can help you see how it works and why it can be beneficial. These factors include:

  • Curiosity. Curiosity pushes us to explore and learn for the sole pleasure of learning and mastering.
  • Challenge. Being challenged helps us work at a continuously optimal level work toward meaningful goals.
  • Control. This comes from our basic desire to control what happens and make decisions that affect the outcome.
  • Recognition. We have an innate need to be appreciated and satisfaction when our efforts are recognized and appreciated by others.
  • Cooperation. Cooperating with others satisfies our need for belonging. We also feel personal satisfaction when we help others and work together to achieve a shared goal.
  • Competition. Competition poses a challenge and increases the importance we place on doing well.
  • Fantasy. Fantasy involves using mental or virtual images to stimulate your behavior. An example is a virtual game that requires you to answer a question or solve a problem to move to the next level. Some motivation apps use a similar approach.

The following are some things you can do to help you practice better intrinsic motivation:

  • Look for the fun in work and other activities or find ways to make tasks engaging for yourself.
  • Find meaning by focusing on your value, the purpose of a task, and how it helps others.
  • Keep challenging yourself by setting attainable goals that focus on mastering a skill, not on external gains.
  • Help someone in need, whether it’s a friend who could use a hand at home or lending a hand at a soup kitchen.
  • Create a list of things you genuinely love to do or have always wanted to do and choose something on the list to do whenever you have time or are feeling uninspired.
  • Participate in a competition and focus on the camaraderie and how well you perform instead of on winning.
  • Before starting a task, visualize a time that you felt proud and accomplished and focus on those feelings as you work to conquer the task.

There are things that you can do to help foster intrinsic motivation in your children. Parents often use external rewards or pressure to try to get their children to perform certain tasks, such as doing homework or cleaning their room.

The following are ways that may help foster intrinsic motivation in your child.

  • Give them choices instead of making an activity a requirement. Having a say makes them more intrinsically motivated.
  • Encourage independent thinking by giving them space to work on a task alone and reporting back to you when they’re satisfied with the result.
  • Make activities fun by turning tasks like reading or picking up their toys into a game.
  • Present opportunities for your child to feel successful by assigning a developmentally appropriate skill for them to fine-tune.
  • Encourage them to focus on the internal benefits of activities, such as how good it makes them feel instead of what they can get for doing it.

Intrinsic motivation can be applied to all aspects of your life and has been shown to be an effective way to improve performance. By changing the focus to the internal rewards of a task, such as satisfaction and enjoyment, you can better motivate yourself and others.