What motivates you? Lots of people would say that a desire to earn money gets them out of bed in the morning. For others, it’s deep connections with friends or family members. Maybe you have many passions and can’t wait to start your day to immerse yourself in learning or pursuing a hobby.
Even if you can’t pinpoint why you do what you do, there’s a reason that you get up and go to work in the morning. If you feel inspired but can’t put your finger on why, you might be driven by intrinsic motivation.
What’s the Difference Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation?
Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do something to get a reward or avoid punishment. Some examples of this are doing well in school so that you will get good grades or practicing running drills so that you can help your team with a trophy.
It’s not surprising that many people are inspired by extrinsic motivation. This is the way that many children are brought up in our society.
When you were younger, you might have cleaned your room so that your parents wouldn’t reprimand you. Conversely, many parents reward their children for good behavior. They might give their kids screen time or a special dessert for doing chores or being kind to their siblings.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It doesn’t involve a reward that anyone can give you. It has to do with the things that you find interesting and enjoyable.
For example, you might do the Sunday crossword puzzle because you find it challenging. No one is going to give you a prize for completing it.
When you’re in your late teens, you go to college because most of your friends are doing it. Your parents are probably encouraging you to attend university as well. They say that a degree will help you get a good job and earn a high salary. Those are examples of extrinsic motivation.
After you’ve been in the workforce for a while, you might decide to go back to school. Perhaps you’re interested in the way that the body works, and you’d like to learn more about physical therapy. Sure, you know that you can improve your resume by continuing your education. But you are so passionate about the subject that you get straight A’s and graduate at the top of your class.
Are You Intrinsically Motivated to Go to Work?
You might have been so successful in your second round of schooling because you were intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation can incite action, especially in certain situations. But intrinsic motivation may be more effective at breeding success.
When you’re motivated by something that arises inside of you, you usually express interest in an activity. You probably take consistent action. You probably won’t be as likely to ditch the activity when it gets difficult the way you would if you were doing it for a reward or someone else.
One example of this is taking a job. You might accept a particular position because it offers excellent benefits and a higher salary than your last job.
At first, you’re excited to get up and go to work every morning. You don’t mind the commute, and the days go by quickly.
Over time, the high salary becomes your norm. It no longer feels like a reward. Now, it’s just the amount of money that you need to pay the bills.
You start groaning when you roll out of bed. Driving to work is grueling. The days tick by, and all you can think about is going home and doing something that you enjoy.
Is Intrinsic Motivation Better than Extrinsic Motivation?
There is nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation. However, when it’s used on its own, it isn’t a consistent motivator. Extrinsic motivation doesn’t always last.
You know this if you’ve ever tried to give your child a treat for cleaning their room. The next time they pick up their clothes and organize their closet, they’re going to ask what they’re going to get for it. They’re also probably going to have a hard time keeping it neat.
On the other hand, if you help them understand how relaxing it is to play in an organized room, they might keep it clean. When they can easily find their toys and don’t lose their favorite things, they may realize that they appreciate a clean room.
Reaching that point is the key to staying motivated. With extrinsic motivation, the reward has to be repeated. With intrinsic motivation, you’re also consistently rewarded. It’s just that the reward arises from within.
Extrinsic Motivation Can Deplete Your Desire
Desire is an important factor behind motivation. If you want to do something, you probably have no trouble completing it.
Think about a hobby that you enjoy. Perhaps you love gardening. When it starts to get warm in the spring, you’re spending time at garden stores, purchasing seeds, plants, and soil.
No one has to prompt you to remember to tend to your garden. You initiate the activity, and you keep it up because it’s important to you.
What might happen if someone started to pay you to maintain your garden? You might think it would be a great deal! You’d be getting compensated for doing what you love to do. Isn’t this everyone’s dream?
Unfortunately, evidence shows that extrinsic rewards can reduce your interest in something that you once loved. In one study, researchers looked at children that enjoyed playing with a specific toy. Those kids were extrinsically motivated.
Then, the researchers began rewarding the kids for playing with the same item. The children ended up losing interest.
Extrinsic motivation can diminish your passion in something that you were naturally interested in. One theory is that it makes play feel like work, which is inherently less enjoyable or rewarding.
There are instances in which extrinsic motivation can be beneficial. Some effective extrinsic motivation examples are:
- Unexpected rewards – If your boss decides to treat your department to donuts and coffee because you helped land a deal, your future performance will probably not be affected. On the other hand, if you get donuts and coffee every time you secure a new client, you may come to expect the reward and decrease your intrinsic motivation to do your best at work.
- Offering rewards for a boring task – Sometimes, you just don’t want to do a particular activity because it’s tedious or monotonous. Getting an extrinsic reward may give you the urge to participate even when you have no initial interest.
- Using rewards to initiate interest – You might need an external bonus to get started on a new project or learn a new skill. Once you gain the knowledge, you might continue to do the activity because you’re intrinsically motivated.
- Giving rewards as feedback – Extrinsic rewards can let you know when you’re doing something to a certain standard. A good example of this is using grades to measure what students have learned.
Aren’t More Rewards Better?
You might think that offering multiple levels of rewards is the best way to drive behavior. For example, employers may offer a complex system of bonuses to boost performance. But researchers have been finding that adding extrinsic motivators doesn’t always make people work harder. In fact, it may weaken performance.
In one study, Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski looked at the correlation between West Point graduation rates and motivation.
When they enter the academy, cadets complete a survey that asks them about their reasons for enrolling. Wrzesniewski and her team found that cadets who had powerful intrinsic motivators were more likely to:
- Graduate from the academy
- Be eligible for early promotion
- Stay in the Army past the initial term
The cadets with the best performance were motivated mainly by their own aspirations. Some examples of intrinsic motivation in this case were the desire to become an Army officer or the wish to lead others.
Those with a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators didn’t perform as well as those with only intrinsic motivators. Neither did those who were driven solely by extrinsic motivators, such as getting a better job or earning more money after graduation.
As a result of this study, the U.S. Military has reconsidered the way that it recruits cadets. Leaders in many industries are questioning whether they should emphasize the importance of getting scholarships for college or offering career training. Instead, they might want to highlight the fact that graduates can serve their country or serve as mentors to others.
The Science Behind Intrinsic Motivation Examples
According to Fast Company, intrinsic motivation is the driving force behind success. It’s connected with your deep desires, which makes it rich and meaningful. You’re driven to perform because doing so fuels you in some way.
This brings up something that many people in our culture are taught to ignore: we do things because they feel good.
Let’s say that you want to become a doctor. When you think about the reasons for going into that line of work, you might say that you enjoy helping people. If you dig deeper, you realize that you want to be of service because it feels good.
When you get some kind of internal satisfaction from your efforts, you’re more likely to do them again and again. Your brain tells you that performing this activity feels good. When your reward pathways are activated, you want to repeat the activity to get that good feeling again.
Intrinsic motivation can do more than make you want to work hard. Finding meaning in what you do can help you be more creative. In one study, creative writers were asked to complete a survey before they wrote a poem.
One group’s questionnaire focused on intrinsic motivators. The other group was reminded of extrinsic motivators for writing.
The participants that were encouraged to think about their inherent interest in writing before performing the activity were more creative when crafting their poems. Even though both groups initially expressed intrinsic interest in the activity, those that were reminded of the extrinsic reasons for completing the task delivered less creative results.
What Are Some Real-Life Intrinsic Motivation Examples?
Now that you’ve learned how intrinsic motivation can be more effective than external rewards in enhancing your performance, find out how to apply the information to your life.
Intrinsic Motivation and Exercise
You’ve heard it before: the best way to be consistent with an exercise program is to choose an activity that you love to do. Experts recommend dancing, swimming and playing with your kids if you just can’t bring yourself to pound your feet on a treadmill or force yourself to go to the gym.
The reason why you will probably keep up a workout routine that you enjoy is that you harness your intrinsic motivation.
Many people initiate their exercise regimen based on an external motivator. You might step on the scale and realize that you’ve gained 10 pounds. Perhaps you have trouble buttoning your jeans.
It seems like being comfortable in your clothing or seeing the scale budge would keep you on track with your health and fitness goals. But eventually, you decide that a slice of pizza tastes better than the excitement of seeing the number on the scale drop negligibly.
Psychology Today lists 19 reasons to exercise. Most of them are extrinsic motivators, such as:
- Reducing blood pressure
- Building aerobic power
- Lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes
- Reducing body fat
- Building muscle mass
- Improving respiration efficiency
- Lowering dementia risk
- Boosting memory
- Building intelligence
These are valid reasons to exercise. Moving your body can improve your mental and physical health. But are those extrinsic motivators compelling enough to prevent you from sitting back on the couch instead of strapping on your running shoes?
Evidence shows that adherence to an exercise routine is linked with motives that concentrate on enjoyment, competence and social interaction. You might think that body-related motives, such as fitness goals or appearance, would keep you interested in exercising. However, those external influences don’t last.
What are some intrinsic motivation examples for exercise? These are factors that you apply to yourself and come from within.
In other words, these are not reasons why you should work out. They’re the reasons why you want to work out. Intrinsic motivation examples for exercise might include:
- You love the burn that comes from lifting weights
- You love the energy rush that you get after you run
- You feel proud after you work out
- You enjoy the feeling of support that you get from the people in your Pilates class
- Yoga drops you into centered calmness
Intrinsic Motivation Examples at Work
When you’ve been working long hours and aren’t feeling motivated to go to work in the morning, you might think that you deserve a raise. Perhaps you do, but it’s not necessarily going to make you want to work harder.
Establishing sources of intrinsic motivation may help you do your job better. Some ways to use intrinsic motivation in the workplace include:
- Taking on more responsibility
- Keeping a list of your accomplishments
- Tracking your progress
- Making an effort to do your best every day
- Patting yourself on the back for making good decisions
- Learning more about a process, department or category that you’re interested in
- Socializing with your colleagues
Do some of the items on this list surprise you? Author Daniel Pink is familiar with that sentiment. In fact, his book is called, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”
He says that the three pillars of motivation are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is not the same thing as independence. Instead, it’s the freedom to make your own choices.
For example, allowing employees to make their own schedules and take as much vacation time as they want as long as they get their jobs done can motivate them more than raising their salaries. Even though these organizations base performance on results, they make the process enjoyable and rewarding.
People also want to get better at the things that they’re passionate about. Mastery brings on a state of flow, which feels better than struggling to do something that you’re not good at.
Finally, individuals need to connect their tasks with a higher purpose. Working hard to bring in profits that are going straight into the CEO’s bank account is not motivating. Using other values as an incentive to work hard can be much more enticing.
Even if you work at a fast-food restaurant, you can make this intrinsic motivation work for you. Maybe you work hard because you love making life easier for people. That’s all it takes to put a smile on your face and head into work.
Intrinsic Motivation Examples at School
Many experts talk about the importance of intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Starting early can help foster a sense of curiosity and internal reward that can last a lifetime.
Intrinsic motivation plays a huge role in Montessori education. This style of learning is all about helping children feel successful while nurturing their innate inquisitiveness, autonomy and desire for knowledge.
Montessori educators don’t think about instructing children. They consider themselves guides that help bring out kids’ natural strengths.
Something that surprises many people about this education style is that teachers don’t give grades. Instead, children assess their own work for errors. Doing this promotes intrinsic motivation.
When children see that they’ve made a mistake, they don’t think, “Oh no, I’m going to get a bad grade, and my parents are going to be upset with me.” That would be an example of extrinsic motivation. That student might study harder next time to avoid the punishment associated with a poor grade.
When kids can evaluate their own work, they see errors and think, “How can I correct that mistake?” There is no shame or punishment associated with getting the answer wrong. Finding an error is an opportunity to learn more or pursue another angle.
In a Montessori school, kids are also encouraged to pursue mastery from an internal perspective. They don’t have to try hard to get a good grade; they are urged to keep trying because practice will eventually make challenging work feel easier. In this environment, experimentation and exploration are prized.
Some ways to stimulate intrinsic motivation in any learning environment include:
- Having students come up with new solutions to old problems
- Letting kids brainstorm creative ways of performing a routine task
- Asking students to list why they want to learn about a particular subject
- Having students work in teams or groups
- Praising students when they’ve worked hard, demonstrated initiative or shown creativity
- Allowing students to track their own progress
- Giving kids choices
- Sharing what’s going on in the classroom with other students, parents and the community
How Does Praise Affect Intrinsic Motivation?
Although praise usually comes from someone else, it can keep you intrinsically motivated. However, praise is a tricky reward.
You can become addicted to getting admiration for your work. When you begin to look elsewhere for approval, you stop relying on yourself for fulfillment.
If you want to use praise to your advantage, you need to internalize it. Don’t just ignore a compliment. Thank the source for the admiration.
Then, reflect on it. What qualities did you bring to the table to deserve that acclaim? For example, maybe you just wrapped up an important project at work. When someone tells you that you did a great job, ask yourself what you did that contributed to the success of your undertaking.
You might come up with a list such as the following:
- I worked hard even when I was tired or discouraged
- I used my people skills to develop strong relationships with my team
- I was curious whenever I was presented with new information
- I balanced my home and work life so that I didn’t burn out
- I asked for help when I needed it
- I used my resources wisely
- I gave my colleagues productive feedback throughout the process
Doing this allows you to internalize the praise. You can look back at your list and think, “I’m a persistent, resilient, interesting person who works well with people and knows how to enjoy herself.”
The next time a project comes up, you might be motivated to take a leadership role because you remember how good you felt when you brought all of these positive qualities to the table. You recall the tribute that you received the last time. However, what’s more important is that you recognize your strengths and are excited to use them again.
When it comes to praise, focusing on what others think of you is not the best way to boost your motivation. Stop worrying about other people’s judgments and start caring about the way that you value yourself.
The Myth of Intrinsic Motivation
Some say that intrinsic motivation is doing work for its own sake. However, that’s not exactly what happens.
When you receive a wad of cash, your brain’s reward pathways are activated. Those pathways are also involved in processing the rewards that come from intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation may not result in more money in your bank account, a better body or improvements in your relationship. But it’s still a type of reward.
It’s just an incentive that isn’t related to an outcome or consequence. That explains why intrinsic motivation may be more effective than extrinsic motivation.
You can’t always control results. Therefore, relying on extrinsic factors to motivate you can leave you disappointed if you never get the reward that you’re seeking.
If you lose weight to make people more attracted to you, you might get discouraged when you don’t get a date after hitting the gym every day for several months. If that happens, do you think you’ll continue to work out?
The same goes for working out to lower your blood pressure or improve your cholesterol. What if your numbers keep rising after you’ve been on a steady exercise regimen for a year?
On the other hand, you could be excited to work out because it makes you feel healthy. That’s a different story.
Intrinsic motivation is linked to factors that you can control. Namely, internal motivation comes from the feeling that you get from doing a certain activity. In the simplest terms, intrinsic motivation happens when you do something because you like the way that it makes you feel.
Ultimately, you can control your emotions better than you can regulate an external reward.
Some critics argue that intrinsic motivation isn’t real. Steven Reiss says that there are 16 basic desires that drive motivation. Still, these fundamental needs, which include acceptance, family, idealism, romance and independence, are largely internal qualities.
Fulfilling these desires may be the key to keeping humans motivated to succeed. Albert Einstein said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” On the other hand, if do what you think is best because you find fulfillment and meaning in being the way that you are, you will live a purpose-filled life.