Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external prods, pressures, or rewards. The phenomenon of intrinsic motivation was first acknowledged within experimental studies of animal behavior, where it was discovered that many organisms engage in exploratory, playful, and curiosity-driven behaviors even in the absence of reinforcement or reward (White, 1959). These spontaneous behaviors, although clearly bestowing adaptive benefits on the organism, appear not to be done for any such instrumental reason, but rather for the positive experiences associated with exercising and extending one’s capacities.
A woman in a coffee shop, working on her laptop and listening to headphones.
If a person finds satisfaction from a particular task or finds it interesting, he or she may be motivated to complete it and learn from it. Positive feelings or interest associated with an activity aids in learning because the person is intrinsically motivated to do that activity.
In humans, intrinsic motivation is not the only form of motivation, or even of volitional activity, but it is a pervasive and important one. From birth onward, humans, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious, and playful creatures, displaying a ubiquitous readiness to learn and explore, and they do not require extraneous incentives to do so. This natural motivational tendency is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development because it is through acting on one’s inherent interests that one grows in knowledge and skills. The inclinations to take interest in novelty, to actively assimilate, and to creatively apply our skills are not limited to childhood but are a significant feature of human nature that affects performance, persistence, and well-being across life’s epochs (Ryan & LaGuardia, 2012).
Although, in one sense, intrinsic motivation exists within individuals, in another sense intrinsic motivation exists in the relation between individuals and activities. People are intrinsically motivated for some activities and not others, and not everyone is intrinsically motivated for any particular task.
Because intrinsic motivation exists in the nexus between a person and a task, some authors have defined intrinsic motivation in terms of the task being interesting while others have defined it in terms of the satisfactions a person gains from intrinsically motivated task engagement. In part, these different definitions derive from the fact that the concept of intrinsic motivation was proposed as a critical reaction to the two behavioral theories that were dominant in empirical psychology from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Specifically, because operant theory (Skinner, 1953) maintained that all behaviors are motivated by rewards (i.e., by separable consequence such as food or money), intrinsically motivated activities were said to be ones for which the reward was in the activity itself. Thus, researchers investigated what task characteristics make an activity interesting. In contrast, because learning theory (Hull, 1943) asserted that all behaviors are motivated by physiological drives (and their derivatives), intrinsically motivated activities were said to be ones that provided satisfaction of innate psychological needs. Thus, researchers explored what basic needs are satisfied by intrinsically motivated behaviors. [. . .]
Extrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination Theory
When trying to better understand extrinsic motivation, it helps to align it with a theory that distinguishes between different types of motivation based on the different reasons or goals that give rise to an action. In this case, self-determination theory (SDT) can accomplish this goal. [. . .]
Extrinsic motivation is a construct that pertains whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome. Extrinsic motivation thus contrasts with intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing an activity simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself, rather than its instrumental value. However, unlike some perspectives that view extrinsically motivated behavior as invariantly non-autonomous, SDT proposes that extrinsic motivation can vary greatly in the degree to which it is autonomous. For example, a student who does his homework only because he fears parental sanctions for not doing it is extrinsically motivated because he is doing the work in order to attain the separable outcome of avoiding sanctions. Similarly, a student who does the work because she personally believes it is valuable for her chosen career is also extrinsically motivated because she too is doing it for its instrumental value rather than because she finds it interesting. Both examples involve instrumentalities, yet the latter case entails personal endorsement and a feeling of choice, whereas the former involves mere compliance with an external control. Both represent intentional behavior, but the two types of extrinsic motivation vary in their relative autonomy.
Given that many of the educational activities prescribed in schools are not designed to be intrinsically interesting, a central question concerns how to motivate students to value and self-regulate such activities and, without external pressure, to carry them out on their own. This problem is described within SDT in terms of fostering the internalization and integration of values and behavioral regulations (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Internalization is the process of taking in a value or regulation, and integration is the process by which individuals more fully transform the regulation into their own so that it will emanate from their sense of self. Thought of as a continuum, the concept of internalization describes how one’s motivation for behavior can range from amotivation or unwillingness, to passive compliance, to active personal commitment. With increasing internalization (and its associated sense of personal commitment) come greater persistence, more positive self-perceptions, and better quality of engagement.