Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation Definition

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something “just to be doing it.” That is, the experience of the behavior is reward enough, independent of any separable consequences that may follow. Intrinsic motivation often leads to or promotes flow, in which individuals become completely absorbed in some challenging activity, such as rock climbing or piano playing. Intrinsic motivation is typically contrasted with extrinsic motivation, in which behavior has no intrinsic appeal and occurs only because of the rewards and reinforcements it brings.

Intrinsic Motivation Background and History

Intrinsic MotivationIt took a long time for the concept of intrinsic motivation to be accepted in psychology. This is because the concept does not fit well with the behaviorist and drive-theory models of human nature that dominated in the early to mid-20th century. Behaviorist theories say that behavior occurs because it has been rewarded in the past, that is, because it has been positively reinforced by rewards or consequences administered after the behavior is over. Drive theories say that all behavior is ultimately motivated by the necessity of dealing with biological demands and needs, such as hunger, thirst, and pain avoidance. Neither model can explain spontaneous, playful, and exploratory behavior that is unrelated to external rewards or to biological drives. Such spontaneous behavior was observed many times in the early part of the century, even in lower animals. For example, rats will incur pain, and hungry monkeys will pass up food, to get the opportunity to explore a new area of their enclosure. Mechanistically oriented psychologists at the time tried to reduce such behavior to biological drives or external conditioning, but their explanations were unpersuasive. It was not until the cognitive revolution of the 1960s that an appropriate paradigm emerged for viewing intrinsic motivation. From a cognitive perspective, intrinsic motivation expresses the desire to stimulate, exercise, and develop the central nervous system. Given that complex online information processing is central to human adaptation, it makes sense that humans would have evolved an inherent motivation to seek out challenges, develop interests, and consolidate their knowledge of the world. This assumption is also central to contemporary cognitive-developmental theory, according to which individuals’ active attempts at mastery provide the basis for many types of cognitive growth and change.

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Intrinsic Motivation Evidence and Outcomes

The early experimental research on intrinsic motivation focused on the intrinsic motivation undermining effect. This was the counterintuitive finding that people are often less interested in doing something after they have received a reward for doing it, a finding that radically contradicts the assumptions and predictions of operant behaviorism. In a typical experiment, participants would first play with an interesting puzzle. Some participants would be asked simply to try it out, and others would be given rewards (i.e., money, food, certificates) for doing, or for solving, the puzzle. In a later free-choice period, rewarded participants were less likely to spontaneously play with the puzzle, as observed through a one-way mirror; apparently, their intrinsic motivation had been undermined. This finding and the findings of other early intrinsic motivation researchers were controversial at the time and remain controversial today, primarily among behaviorally oriented psychologists.

Still, intrinsic motivation has been shown to be hugely important in many domains, including education, medicine, sports, work behavior, and personal goal pursuit. Intrinsically motivated individuals report better mood, enjoyment, and satisfaction than extrinsically motivated individuals. They also perform better—processing information more deeply, solving problems more flexibly, and functioning more effectively and creatively in general. As one example research program, Teresa M. Amabile’s pioneering studies showed that individual creativity in artistic pursuits (e.g., collage making, haiku writing, drawing), as consensually agreed upon by multiple judges, is often undermined by external contingencies including not only positive external rewards and prizes (i.e., a sticker for “best collage”) but also negative external pressures, such as deadlines, threats, surveillance, and evaluation.

When do rewards undermine intrinsic motivation? A recent and comprehensive meta-analysis summarized more than 100 experimental studies, showing that free-choice motivation is most undermined when the rewards are expected (rather than unexpected) and are contingent (rather than noncontingent) upon either task engagement, task completion, or positive task performance. In other words, if a person gets what he or she expects, as a reward for starting, finishing, or doing well at a task, then that person tends to lose interest in the task. Notably, this meta-analysis also showed that verbal praise rewards are not necessarily undermining and can even enhance intrinsic motivation, as evidenced by greater subsequent free-choice play following praise.

Theories of Intrinsic Motivation

What causes the intrinsic motivation undermining effect? Edward Deci, and his later colleague Richard Ryan, developed cognitive evaluation theory to explain it. In this model, human beings have innate psychological needs for both competence and autonomy. Individuals tend to lose their intrinsic motivation for activities that thwart these needs. Incompetent performance is thus an obvious potential detractor from intrinsic motivation, and indeed, in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, a nonoptimal match between one’s skills and the task demands is defined as a major impediment to flow. Deci and Ryan’s novel proposal was that rewards can thwart autonomy needs when people perceive that the rewards are being used in a controlling way. In this case, the individual may shift from an internal perceived locus of causality (“I am the origin of my behavior”) to an external perceived locus of causality (“I am a pawn to my circumstances”). Central to the model is the individual’s cognitive evaluation of the reward. Does it seem to represent an authority’s attempt to dictate or force his or her behavior? According to cognitive evaluation theory, even verbal praise can undermine intrinsic motivation if the recipient evaluates the praise as an attempt to coerce him or her. The results of the meta-analysis described in the previous section suggest that on average, tangible rewards tend to carry such connotations, although verbal praise does not.

In contemporary psychology, Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory uses the concept of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for a comprehensive theory of human motivation, agency, self-regulation, and thriving. The theory takes an organismic, humanistic, and somewhat liberal perspective on human nature, hoping to illuminate how societies should be constituted to maximize peoples’ self-actualization and psychological well-being. This theory focuses on the connections between social and cultural contexts (i.e., autonomy-supportive vs. controlling), contextual motivation (i.e., intrinsic vs. extrinsic), and resultant outcomes (i.e., need satisfaction, mood, performance, creativity, and future motivation). In keeping with cognitive evaluation theory, the theory also focuses on personality traits and styles as determinants of contextual motivation; some people are more prone to interpret rewards as controls and constraints (control orientation), whereas others are able to interpret rewards merely as informational and noncontrolling (autonomy orientation).

Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is a highly desirable quality, to be fostered within individual personalities as well as within social contexts such as classrooms, workplaces, ball fields, and interpersonal relationships. Indeed, intrinsic motivation may be essential to the achievement of optimal human being.


  1. Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  2. Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.
  3. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.