Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation occurs when an individual engages in an activity solely because the activity is perceived and experienced as interesting and enjoyable and not because of any external incentive or inducement to do so. Historically, intrinsic motivation has been distinguished from amotivation, which refers to a lack of drive or energy to engage in an activity, and extrinsic motivation, which occurs when someone engages in an activity for some reason other than the sheer interest and enjoyment of the activity. Contemporary models of intrinsic motivation vary in the extent to which they explore the subjective experience of interest and the role it plays in self-regulating behavior. However, all perspectives acknowledge the influence of various situational and individual factors on interest and intrinsic motivation. The integration of these contemporary models with research on emotion, cognitive appraisal, and self-regulation will further advance the applicability of intrinsic motivation research to education, work, and mental, emotional, and physical health.

What is Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation Definition

In Latin, the root of the word motivation means “to move.” The study of motivation involves the attempt to understand why people engage in certain activities (e.g., work, school, social relationships, personal health and fitness) and includes studying the choices people make and whether and how they continue to engage in activities once they begin.

A phenomenological perspective is essential to adequately grasp how social scientists conceptualize intrinsic motivation. In other words, it is necessary to try to understand the subjective experience of the individual, including the personal meaning, importance, and value the individual places on certain activities and the feelings of interest and enjoyment the individual feels. These value- and feeling-related variables are generally positively correlated with one another; however, they may relate somewhat differently to people’s activity choices and their continued involvement in activities over time.

Psychologists conceptualize intrinsic motivation in three ways. Educational and sport psychologists, in particular, conceptualize intrinsic motivation as an individual difference characteristic, trait-like in nature, and they use self-report scales to measure differences in motivation among people. In general, these scales assess differences in people’s preferences for challenging activities, their strivings for competence and mastery, and their perceived interest in certain activities. Other researchers conceptualize intrinsic motivation as a situational characteristic. These scholars examine how altering certain aspects of an activity influence the degree to which the activity is perceived as interesting. For example, researchers have examined the extent to which novelty, sex-typing, performance feedback, and the actual presence of other people affects interest in an activity. A third group of scholars, recognizing that individual and situational factors are likely to influence motivation, examines the ways in which activity characteristics, individual differences, and contextual factors combine to influence interest and motivation.

Although researchers have measured intrinsic motivation in a variety of ways, two measures are most often used. One commonly used method is to ask participants to rate their interest and enjoyment after engaging in an activity (i.e., self-report). The second method involves a behavioral measure of interest during a “free choice” period. In experiments using this method, participants engage in a specific task under varying conditions (e.g., praise vs. no praise). After finishing the task, the experimenter tells the participant that he or she will not be working with the task any longer. Then, the participant is left alone in the lab with the original task and several distractor tasks for a period of time. During this period, the participant has free choice to engage in any or none of the tasks in the room. The amount of time the participant spends with the experimental task during the free choice period, when no extrinsic reason is in place, is considered the measure of intrinsic motivation.

A Brief History of Intrinsic Motivation

People have been pondering the distinction between motivation arising from within the individual and motivation derived from some external source at least as far back as writings attributed to Confucius (551—179 B.C.). As a behavioral phenomenon, intrinsic motivation was initially described in the 1940s and 1950s in experiments with nonhuman animals. In these experiments, animals were observed to engage in exploratory behaviors, appearing curious and playful, even in the absence of any external reinforcer.

The contemporary concept of intrinsic motivation as it relates to human behavior developed as a challenge to learning and behavioral conditioning theories prominent in the field of psychology from the 1940s through 1960s. Operant conditioning theory asserted that people engaged in activities because of the nature of the reinforcements they received as a consequence. In contrast, the concept of intrinsic motivation highlighted that for some activities, the reward came from doing the activity itself, not from what happened after. Even though some learning theories allowed for motivation as a cause of behavior, these theories focused on motivation based on satisfaction of basic physiological needs (e.g., hunger, thirst, sex), or on satisfaction of learned needs that at one point were associated with basic physiological needs (e.g., motivation to obtain money). Initial conceptions of intrinsic motivation, in contrast, highlighted the possibility that some activities were motivated by basic psychological needs (e.g., personal causation, competence).

Over the next 40 years, intrinsic motivation research was guided by the proposition that the motivation to satisfy specific psychological needs (e.g., competence, autonomy, relatedness) was the energy source for intrinsically motivated activities. More recently, the state of intrinsic motivation itself (i.e., the feeling of being interested and immersed in an activity) became a focus of attention due to research suggesting that the satisfaction of these basic needs does not necessarily result in intrinsic motivation. This research highlighted the need to distinguish between the state of intrinsic motivation and the conditions that make it more or less likely to occur. Recent work has also started to focus on the process through which the state of intrinsic motivation may turn into well-developed individual interests that are characterized by extensive knowledge of, valuing of, and long-term commitment to, a particular topic or domain in life.

Contemporary Models of Intrinsic Motivation

The following three models were selected to illustrate the different underlying assumptions that have been made regarding the nature of intrinsic motivation. These assumptions have implications not only for how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are related to one another, but also for how these two forms of motivation relate to other situational and individual characteristics.

Flow Theory

The purest and most intense subjective experience of intrinsic motivation has been labeled flow. Flow describes the emotional state and change in consciousness that occur when people engage in autotelic activities (i.e., activities people do for the activity’s own sake rather than for some type of extrinsic reward). Flow became the descriptor for this experience after several participants in research studies of certain autotelic activities (e.g., rock climbing, chess, painting) reported that when they were engaged in the activity they felt as if a current were carrying them along effortlessly. This state has also been described as feeling immersed in, or being carried away by the activity, in such a way that one loses one’s sense of a separate self.

The defining feature of flow is an intense moment-to-moment involvement in an activity. After the experience, people often report having felt a heightened sense of control, a merging of awareness and action, and an altered sense of time. Although intense flow experiences are relatively uncommon in people’s everyday lives, many activities are capable of producing them as long as several conditions are met. First, flow is more likely to occur when a person is engaged in an activity that has a clear set of goals that serve to direct attention to the activity. Second, the person must feel a balance between the requirements and challenges of the activity and his or her own abilities. When this balance between activity requirements and personal skill exists, the individual’s attention is completely absorbed in the activity. When this balance is not present, the person is more likely to experience anxiety if the challenges are perceived as too difficult, or boredom if the activity is perceived as too easy. A final condition that increases the likelihood flow will occur is the presence of clear, immediate performance feedback that enables the person to engage in corrective action. The experience of flow is psychologically rewarding, and participants often comment that they enjoyed an activity so much they would be willing to go to great lengths to experience it again. In order to induce further flow experiences, individuals must seek out increasingly difficult activities as they master skills and challenges. Therefore, the experience of flow itself is assumed to reinforce behaviors underlying human growth and development.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory (SDT) rests on the assumption that people are active organisms, innately motivated toward growth and development. Consequently, people naturally seek to experience optimal levels of stimulation, mastery over challenges, and a sense of volition and choice (i.e., self-determination). The social environment may either aid or thwart people’s abilities to meet their basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Within the general SDT framework, cognitive evaluation theory focuses on how feedback, praise, and rewards influence a person’s intrinsic motivation, based on whether these social factors are perceived by the person as controlling or as information about his or her competence. Events that lower feelings of autonomy will interfere with intrinsic motivation, whereas events that convey positive competence information will enhance intrinsic motivation. From this perspective, an event does not have to be external to have detrimental effects on intrinsic motivation. Internally generated constraints (e.g., internalized pressure to perform well) may also result in lower intrinsic motivation.

This early recognition led to more recent developments within SDT that suggest that motivation can be thought of not just in terms of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation but also as existing along a continuum of autonomy or self-determination. The proposed continuum ranges from amotivation on one end (the least self-determined) to intrinsic motivation on the other (the most self-determined). In between are four types of extrinsic motivation (external, introjected, identified, and integrated) that differ in the degree to which they are experienced as autonomous, freely chosen and arising from important aspects of the self. The two relatively more autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation (i.e., identified and integrated extrinsic motivation) are distinguished conceptually from intrinsic motivation. However, in research and practice, these distinctions are frequently disregarded because these forms of motivation often have similar positive effects on persistence and effort, and on physical and psychological well-being.

The self-determination continuum has been used to help predict effects of different situational variables on behavioral and psychological outcomes, as well as to provide a basis for the development of individual difference measures. These latter measures attempt to identify consistent differences in particular domains (e.g., education, sports) or between individuals in terms of the degree to which they approach situations with self-determined orientations.

Self-Regulation of Motivation Theory

Although self-determined extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation may often have similar effects on outcomes, self-regulation of motivation theory (SRM) suggests that distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation may be important in understanding the motivational process. SRM theory is based on the assumption that maintaining motivation to engage in a particular activity over time requires that people have some level of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Feelings of “having to” (i.e., extrinsic motivation) may be essential because the activity may lead to some important outcome; and so it may be critical to persist even when the experience is not interesting. In turn, feelings of “wanting to” (i.e., intrinsic motivation) are essential because it is difficult and stressful to persist indefinitely when one dreads the experience. From this perspective, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation may be bidirectionally integrated into an individual’s self-regulatory process over time. For example, research has shown that an extrinsic reason to value a boring activity (self-determined extrinsic motivation) can lead to intrinsic motivation, by motivating the person to engage in strategies that make doing the activity more interesting. Moreover, engaging in interest-enhancing strategies can, in turn, lead to seeing the activity as more valuable.

A critical task of self-regulation, therefore, is to regulate both kinds of motivation when and if needed. In other words, intrinsic motivation is embedded in people’s everyday regulation of behavior. Rather than being a rarity, limited to special flow experiences, interest and enjoyment are crucial for the continued performance of activities people deem important to their everyday lives. This perspective suggests that the absence of interest may be an important (and underrecognized) source of motivational and affective problems. For example, the absence of interest during the process of activity engagement may lead individuals to discontinue the activity or to select alternative activities, even when this means foregoing important positive outcomes. Some researchers have suggested that certain problem behaviors among individuals with psychiatric disorders (e.g., failure to sustain treatment) may in fact be reactions to boredom, particularly for individuals beginning to recover from psychotic breaks. Moreover, if individuals attempt to regulate their interest in an activity rather than quitting the activity, the particular strategies they use might be considered off-task or inappropriate, resulting in negative evaluations by others and other negative consequences.

By embedding intrinsic motivation within the everyday self-regulatory process, this perspective illuminates potential implications for the relationships between goals and the experience of interest. For example, rather than identifying certain types of goals as inherently intrinsic or extrinsic, the key is identifying whether working toward a particular goal is associated with the experience of interest for a particular individual. An individual is likely to experience greater interest when the context is congruent with (i.e., matches) his or her goals, and when multiple goals are compatible with each other. Intrinsic motivation does not just depend on particular characteristics of a task or situation, therefore, but rather is a dynamic state that arises through an ongoing transaction among individuals’ goals, activity characteristics, and the surrounding context over time.

Related Situational and Individual Factors

What Makes Something Interesting?

Researchers have identified various characteristics of activities and situations that influence the degree to which an activity is perceived as interesting. For example, the addition of fantasy story lines and the addition of information to make the activity personally relevant can enhance students’ interest in educational video games. In general, activities that arouse curiosity, allow people to act effectively, or allow involvement in fantasy tend to be those that individuals find interesting. In contrast, external constraints on behavior interfere with a person’s interest in an experience. For example, rewards made contingent on performing an activity that the person would have done anyway because of interest tend to decrease subsequent intrinsic motivation to perform the activity. Rewards made contingent on performing well, in contrast, have a more complex set of effects. Working with other people can lead to greater interest, particularly for some individuals. The next section describes the role of individual differences in understanding what leads to greater or lesser interest.

Is it interesting to Me?

Researchers have identified a variety of individual differences that serve to moderate the influence of particular activity and situational factors in fostering interest. For example, individuals higher in interpersonal orientation may experience greater interest when working on activities with others (assuming that the interpersonal interactions are positive). In contrast, individuals higher in achievement orientation may experience greater interest when working on activities that involve competition against others.

Clearly, a wide variety of factors influence activity interest. Yet, how do people decide for themselves whether or not an activity is interesting? The appraisal structure of interest model assumes that interest works similarly to other emotions, resting on an appraisal of the situation and people’s capacities to respond. According to the model, people’s perceptions of novelty (i.e., the unfamiliarity and complexity of an activity) and their coping potential (the degree to which people believe they can understand a new and complex activity) are two factors influencing the degree to which interest is experienced. People’s coping potential encompasses their appraisals of whether they have the resources, skills, power, and personal control to handle the activity effectively. When people approach a novel activity believing they can understand and handle it, they are more likely to experience interest. Over time, the emotional experience of interest may guide the development of enduring personal interests in certain kinds of activities.

Applications of Intrinsic Motivation Theory

Scientific understanding of the essential role of intrinsic motivation in human motivation and the self-regulation of behavior has been applied to a wide variety of social contexts, including education, health care, parenting, exercise and sports, and work and organizations. Following are several examples of how theory and research on intrinsic motivation have been applied in different domains.

A number of researchers interested in achievement behavior have recognized the important interplay between achievement goals and intrinsic motivation. Traditionally, two types of achievement goals have been distinguished. Mastery goals involve attempts to learn and increase one’s competence, whereas performance goals involve attempts to maximize positive evaluations of competence and minimize negative evaluations. More recently, performance goals have been subdivided into two types: goals to display competence relative to others (performance-approach goals) and goals to not appear incompetent relative to others (performance-avoidance goals). Research has indicated that mastery goals are positively correlated with interest and enjoyment of learning, hope, and pride as well as with academic performance and prosocial behavior in the classroom. The effect of performance goals is less clear. However, performance-approach goals tend to have more positive consequences for motivation than performance-avoidance goals, and depending on the context (e.g., whether in the classroom or the lab) and individual differences in achievement orientation, their positive effects on interest may be equivalent to the effects of mastery goals.

The SRM model has been applied effectively to understanding individuals’ vocational and career choices. Indeed, interest is a main reason people give for their career choices. One question that has been examined concerns why women are less likely than men to choose careers in math, computer technology, and the physical sciences. According to the SRM model, people’s career interests are influenced by the degree of match or congruence between their personal work goals and their perceptions of the extent to which different careers offer opportunities to pursue those goals. Women are more likely than men to value opportunities to work with and help other people, whereas men are more likely than women to value opportunities for high pay and recognition. Both women and men perceive math, computer science, and physical science careers as offering fewer opportunities to work with and help other people and more opportunities for high pay relative to several other career options. One consequence of this gender difference in match between individuals’ work goals and their perceptions of different careers is that women and men are likely to find certain career options relatively more or less interesting to pursue.

Sport psychologists have used the concept of intrinsic motivation, both as a situational and individual difference characteristic, to study a number of different phenomena. As a situational characteristic, researchers have examined the effects of performance feedback and coaching climate on people’s intrinsic motivation and goal pursuit. As an individual characteristic, intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations for athletic involvement have been linked to different levels of alcohol use among college students. Specifically, college athletes and exercisers who were intrinsically motivated toward athletics reported less use of alcohol than did those who were extrinsically motivated. A rather unique element of applied research in this domain is that individuals in a wide age range (i.e., from early childhood to older adulthood) have been included.

Applications of intrinsic motivation theory to general counseling contexts have examined myriad forms of behavior, including the development of parenting skills, offender recidivism, and adherence to therapy regimens.

The Ongoing Debate

The earliest experiments on intrinsic motivation in the early 1970s found that tangible extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsic motivation. These results were highly controversial because they challenged the predominant behavioral perspective that asserted that carefully constructed reinforcement contingencies were the most effective way to increase motivation. Since that time, nearly 100 published studies have supported the original finding, yet the debate continues. Some behaviorists maintain that rewards do not decrease intrinsic motivation and advocate the use of reward-based incentive systems in schools. Intrinsic motivation researchers respond by emphasizing the need for caution when implementing such systems.

Researchers on both sides of the debate acknowledge the complex effects of rewards on motivation. For example, over the past 20 years the effects of using performance-contingent rewards (i.e., rewards contingent on doing well on a task, not just completing it) have been shown to be distinct from other types of reward. With performance-contingent rewards, individuals who succeed receive something tangible as a symbol of their excellence. Three properties of performance-contingent rewards (i.e., the psychological pressure arising from knowing one is being evaluated, the fact that the reward clearly conveys task competence, and the symbolic cue value of the reward) simultaneously affect motivation in both positive and negative ways. For example, the performance pressure from being evaluated can negatively affect motivation, whereas the positive performance feedback upon the reward’s receipt can enhance motivation. By providing a tangible symbol of accomplishment, the reward can also increase interest independently of the positive performance feedback by intensifying the emotional significance and importance of the accomplishment (this may help to explain the popularity of trophies and plaques). This third property of performance-contingent reward can thus enhance interest when rewards are obtained, by making the competence level achieved more tangible and valued. However, the same property may diminish interest when individuals fail to qualify for the reward, because the failure also has greater impact.

These research findings are directly relevant to the current high-stakes testing debate in public education. High-stakes testing is endorsed by some as a way of increasing motivation and performance among students, teachers, and school administrators. Students, teachers, and schools performing at or above state or federal standards are rewarded and those failing to meet standards are punished. The results of extensive research on intrinsic motivation over the past 30 years led to the conclusion that the use of such practices is likely to be harmful to students’ and teachers’ interest in, and enjoyment of, learning.

The Future of Intrinsic Motivation

A major concern of psychologists over the next 20 years will be to increase their understanding of the manner in which intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, emotion, cognition, and goal-seeking interact to shape the self-regulation of motivation and behavior. There will likely be continued movement away from the position that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are two ends of a continuum and greater recognition of the fluidity and gradations between these forms of motivation and their simultaneous existence. The integration of existing models of intrinsic motivation (e.g., flow theory, SDT, SRM, appraisal structure of interest theory) within the broader field of positive psychology opens up enormous opportunities for social scientists whose goals are to enhance quality of life and well-being.

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