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What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

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By Kendra Cherry. Psychology Expert

Kendra Cherry is an author and educator with over a decade experience helping students make sense of psychology. She is the author of the Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition) and she has published thousands of articles on diverse topics in psychology including personality, social behavior, child therapy, research methods, and much more.

Question: What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

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. If, however, you are reading this because you have to learn the information for a class so you can avoid getting a bad grade. then you are acting based upon extrinsic motivation .

When was the last time you did something just for the enjoyment of the activity itself? Some examples might include painting a picture, playing a game, writing a story, and reading a book.

When you pursue an activity simply for enjoyment, you are doing so doing so because you are intrinsically motivated. Your motivations for engaging in the behavior arise entirely for 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 are without their own rewards. Instead, these rewards involve creating positive emotions within the individual. Activities can generate such feelings when they give people a sense of meaning (like participating in volunteer or church events), a sense of progress (seeing that your work is accomplishing something positive), or competence (learning something new or becoming more skilled at a task).

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Definitions of Intrinsic Motivation

  • "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."
(Coon & Mitterer, 2010)
  • "Intrinsic motivation refers to the reason why we perform certain activities for inherent satisfaction or pleasure; you might say performing one of these activities in reinforcing in-and-of itself."

    (Brown, 2007)

  • Intrinsic Rewards and Motivation

    Researchers have discovered that offering external rewards for an already internally rewarding activity can actually make the activity less intrinsically rewarding, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect. Why? "A person's intrinsic enjoyment of an activity provides sufficient justification for their behavior," explains author Richard A Griggs in his text Psychology: A Concise Introduction. "With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, the person may perceive the task as overjustified and then attempt to understand their true motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity."

    Experts also suggest that people are more creative when they are intrinsically motivated. In work settings, productivity can be increased by using extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, but 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.

    Motivation to Learn

    Intrinsic motivation is an important topic in education, as 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. Malone and Lepper (1987) suggest that this need not be the case and identify several different ways to make learning environments that are intrinsically rewarding.

    Malone and Lepper define activities as 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. We use the words fun, interesting, captivating, enjoyable, and intrinsically motivating all more or less interchangeably to describe such activities."

    The factors that they identify as increasing intrinsic motivation are:

    • Challenge: People are more motivated when they pursue goals that have personal meaning, that relate to their self-esteem. when performance feedback is available, and when attaining the goal is possible but not necessarily certain.
    • Curiosity: Internal motivation is increased when something in the physical environment grabs the individual's attention (sensory curiosity) and when something about the activity stimulates the person to want to learn more (cognitive curiosity).
    • 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 and also in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others.
    • Recognition: People enjoy having their accomplishment recognized by others, which can increase internal motivation.


    • "Unnecessary rewards sometimes carry hidden costs. Most people think that offering tangible rewards will boost anyone's interest in an activity. Actually, promising children a reward for a task they already enjoy can backfire. In experiments, children promised a payoff for playing with an interesting puzzle or toy later play with the toy less than do children who are not paid to play. It is as if the children think, 'If I have to be bribed into doing this, then it must not be worth doing for its own sake.'"
    (Myers, 2005)
  • "The functional significance, or salience, of the event dictates whether intrinsic motivation is facilitated or diminished. For example, an athlete may perceive receiving an external reward (e.g. money, trophy) as a positive indicator of her sport competence (informational), whereas another athlete may perceive the same reward as coercion to keep her involved in the activity (controlling). Thus, the aspect of the event that is perceived as salient will determine level of autonomy and perceived competence experienced, and ultimately affect intrinsic motivation for that activity."

    (Horn, 2008)

  • Browse the Psychology Dictionary


    Brown, L. V. (2007). Psychology of motivation. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

    Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior with concept maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Griggs, R. A. (2010). Psychology: A concise introduction. New York: Worth Publishers.

    Horn, T. S. (2008). Advances in sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Malone, T. W. & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In R. E. Snow & M. J. Farr (Eds.), Aptitude, learning, and instruction: III. Conative and affective process analysis. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Myers, D. (2005). Exploring psychology, Sixth edition in modules. New York: Worth Publishers.

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