What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

How Internal Rewards Drive Behavior

Intrinsic motivation refers to actions that are driven by internal rewards. The motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within because of the inherent satisfaction of the activity rather than the desire for a reward or specific outcome.

The three main elements of intrinsic motivation are autonomy, purpose, and mastery. People are intrinsically motivated when they can act independently, feel that their efforts matter, and gain satisfaction from becoming more skilled.

Intrinsic motivation can be contrasted with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior to earn external rewards or avoid punishment.

intrinsic motivation
Verywell / Joshua Seong

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

In psychology, intrinsic motivation distinguishes between internal and external rewards. In "Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior With Concept Maps," the authors offer a definition.

"Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials."

Consider for a moment your motivation for reading this article. If you are reading it because you have an interest in psychology and simply want to know more about the topic of motivation, then you are acting based upon intrinsic motivation.

But you might be reading this because you have to learn the information for a class and want to avoid getting a bad grade. Then you are acting based upon extrinsic motivation.


Is It Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation?

When was the last time you did something simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself? There are a number of activities that fall into this category. For instance, you may plant a garden, paint a picture, play a game, write a story, take a walk, or read a book. These may or may not produce something or provide a prize. Instead, we do them because we like to. They make us happy.

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How Intrinsic Motivation Works

When you pursue an activity for the pure enjoyment of it, you are doing so because you are intrinsically motivated. Your motivations for engaging in the behavior arise entirely from within rather than out of a desire to gain some type of external reward, such as prizes, money, or acclaim.

Of course, that isn't to say that intrinsically motivated behaviors do not come with their own rewards. These rewards involve creating positive emotions within the individual.

Activities can generate such feelings when they give you a sense of meaning, like participating in volunteer or church events. They may also give you a sense of progress when you see that your work is accomplishing something positive, or competence when you learn something new or become more skilled at a task.

Impact of Extrinsic Reinforcement

Researchers have discovered that offering external rewards or reinforcements for an already internally rewarding activity can actually make the activity less intrinsically rewarding. This phenomenon is known as the overjustification effect.

"A person's intrinsic enjoyment of an activity provides sufficient justification for their behavior," explains author Richard A. Griggs in his book "Psychology: A Concise Introduction."

"With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, " Griggs writes, "the person may perceive the task as overjustified and then attempt to understand their true motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity."

People tend to be more creative when they are intrinsically motivated.

In work settings, for instance, productivity can be increased by using extrinsic rewards such as a bonus. However, the actual quality of the work performed is influenced by intrinsic factors. If you are doing something that you find rewarding, interesting, and challenging, you are more likely to come up with novel ideas and creative solutions.

Intrinsic Motivation in Your Life

Intrinsic motivation can drive behavior in all aspects of life, particularly in education, sports, careers, and personal pursuits.

In Education

Intrinsic motivation is an important topic in education. Teachers and instructional designers strive to develop learning environments that are intrinsically rewarding. Unfortunately, many traditional paradigms suggest that most students find learning boring, so they must be extrinsically goaded into educational activities.

In a book chapter called "Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning," authors Thomas Malone and Mark Leeper suggest that this does not need to be the case. They identify several different ways to create learning environments that are intrinsically rewarding.

An activity is intrinsically motivating if "people engage in it for its own sake, rather than in order to receive some external reward or avoid some external punishment." The words fun, interesting, captivating, enjoyable, and intrinsically motivating are used interchangeably to describe such activities.

In Personal Pursuits

Examples of intrinsic motivation in daily life abound. If you participate in a sport because you enjoy it rather than to win awards or competitions, you're responding to intrinsic motivation.

Another example: You try to do your best at work because your tasks and mission provide fulfillment and satisfaction, regardless of extrinsic factors such as pay and benefits.

Perhaps you maintain a beautiful garden because you enjoy planting it and watching it grow, not because the neighbors would complain if your yard were messy. Or, maybe you dress stylishly as a way to express yourself and your interest in fashion, rather than to garner attention. Whenever you do something "just for you," you're responding to intrinsic motivation.

Factors That Influence Intrinsic Motivation

Malone and Leeper identify these factors as increasing intrinsic motivation:

  • Challenge: People are more motivated when they pursue goals with personal meaning and when attaining the goal is possible but not necessarily certain. These goals may also relate to their self-esteem when performance feedback is available.
  • Control: People want control over themselves and their environments and want to determine what they pursue.
  • Cooperation and competition: Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where people gain satisfaction from helping others. It also applies to cases where they can compare their performance favorably to that of others.
  • Curiosity: Internal motivation is increased when something in the physical environment grabs the individual's attention (sensory curiosity). It also occurs when something about the activity stimulates the person to want to learn more (cognitive curiosity).
  • Recognition: People enjoy having their accomplishments recognized by others, which can increase internal motivation.

Potential Pitfalls Affecting Intrinsic Motivation

Experts have noted that offering unnecessary rewards can have unexpected costs. While we like to think that offering a reward will improve a person's motivation, interest, and performance, this isn't always the case.

When children are rewarded for playing with toys that they already enjoy playing with, their enjoyment of those toys, and their motivation to continue playing with them, actually decreases.

It is important to note, however, that a number of factors can influence whether intrinsic motivation is increased or decreased by external rewards. Salience or the significance of the event itself often plays a critical role.

An athlete competing in a sporting event might view the winner's prize as confirmation of competence and exceptionalism. On the other hand, some athletes might view the same prize as a sort of bribe or coercion.

The way in which the individual views the importance of different characteristics of the event impacts whether the reward will affect their intrinsic motivation for participating in that activity.

A Word From Verywell

In your own life, there are probably many things you do which are prompted by intrinsic motivation. These are important elements for a well-balanced life. If we spend all of our time working to make money, we may miss out on the simple pleasures of life. Realizing your own intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and balancing them can be quite rewarding.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pink DH. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Reprint, paperback ed. Riverhead Books; 2012.

  2. Coon D, Mitterer JO. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior With Concept Maps. Wadsworth.

  3. Levy A, DeLeon IG, Martinez CK, et al. A quantitative review of overjustification effects in persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. J Appl Behav Anal. 2017;50(2):206–221. doi:10.1002/jaba.359

  4. Griggs RA. Psychology: A Concise Introduction. 3rd ed. Worth Publishers.

  5. Malone TW, Lepper MR. Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In: Snow RE, Farr MJ, ed. Aptitude, Learning, and Instruction: Iii. Conative and Affective Process Analysis. Erlbaum.

  6. Boedecker J, Lampe T, Riedmiller M. Modeling effects of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards on the competition between striatal learning systemsFront Psychol. 2013;4:739. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00739

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.