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What is intrinsic motivation? As the name suggests, intrinsic motivation is a desire to engage in a behavior that comes from within us rather than from something like an external force, like an award (usually money, prizes, or grades). It is self-applied, and it is defined as performing an activity or behavior for its inherent satisfaction.
The phenomenon was first observed in experimental studies of animal behavior. It was discovered that animals engage in playful behaviors even in the absence of reward. Such spontaneous behaviors appeared to have been done just for the positive experiences that came with exercising. And the same principles apply to humans.
Humans are active, curious and playful creatures that should not require external motivations to learn and explore. This makes intrinsic motivation such a pervasive and important type of motivation. This natural tendency is a significant element in our cognitive development. It is based on acting on our inherent interest to acquire knowledge and skills.
If one is pursuing an activity simply for enjoyment, then we can say that the person is intrinsically motivated. It does not arise from the desire to gain money or acclaim. Instead, the reward consists in the feeling of joy or excitement that the individual experiences from that particular activity. These feelings give us a sense of meaning or a sense of progress.
Before getting even deeper into what is intrinsic motivation, we should also talk about the opposite type of motivation – extrinsic motivation.
What Is the Difference between Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Motivation?
As opposed to intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation happens when people are motivated to perform an activity or behavior to earn rewards such as money, prizes, grades, or to avoid punishment. The primary difference between the two is that extrinsic motivation comes from the outside while intrinsic motivation arises from the inside. The two also work on different effectiveness levels.
Researchers have demonstrated that extrinsic rewards can reduce intrinsic motivation. This is called “overjustification effect”. Most people place intrinsic motivation first in terms of efficiency, but it is not always the case. Some people are simply not equipped with the desire to engage in an activity or work for internal purposes only. Extrinsic motivation has its pros, and can be a useful tool because:
- It can induce interest in an activity in which the person had no initial curiosity.
- It can be used as a source of feedback.
- It can be a tool for motivating people into acquiring new skills. This will also grow the individual’s interest in that particular activity.
However, extrinsic motivation can be rather non-beneficiary when a person intrinsically motivated by an activity. Offering external rewards could make that activity seem more like a task rather than something fully pleasant. Of course, it is not a rule, and it does not apply to all individuals. But it is worth considering when questioning how to motivate your child, friend, family member, or any other acquaintance.
On the other side, praise can actually increase intrinsic motivation. Positive feedback is known to improve our internal motivation. Unexpected rewards don’t usually decrease intrinsic motivation as long as it does not become a habit.
What Is Intrinsic Motivation’s Reward?
According to researchers, external rewards or reinforcements can make an activity less intrinsically rewarding. People are more creative when they feel fulfillment while doing an activity they enjoy, rather than knowing they can gain external rewards.
For example, an employee can be externally motivated (what we call “extrinsic motivation”) with bonuses, but the quality of work is still influenced by intrinsic factors. People who love their jobs will always be on top of their game, coming up with new ideas and solutions to grow the business.
To better understand what is intrinsic motivation, we must look at the four intrinsic rewards:
- Sense of meaningfulness. This relates to the importance of what an individual is trying to fulfill. When we feel that we have the opportunity to accomplish something major, we invest both time and energy into following that path. It also gives us a sense of purpose.
- Sense of progress. This defines the feeling we experience when we see that our effort starts paying off. When we notice progress in our work, we feel like we are on the right track, moving in the right direction. This gives us the confidence to continue our journey, as well as increasing self-esteem.
- Sense of competence. When we see progress in any activity we are pursuing, we feel like we are handling everything well. Meeting, or even exceeding, all requirements we, or others, have set out, gives us a sense of satisfaction and pride.
- Sense of choice. Handling our activities well means we also feel in charge of the situation. We are free to choose how to perform our work because we feel like we are approaching it from the right angle. It is how we gain ownership and responsibility for our activities, work, or tasks.
What Is Intrinsic Motivation – Conclusion
What is intrinsic motivation has been explained in various ways, but the main idea is that it speaks for the motivation we experience when doing an activity for our own satisfaction rather than for separable consequence. An intrinsically motivated person can be moved to act on something just for fun, without expecting external rewards, acclaims, and without feeling pressure to complete the task.
Intrinsic motivation is found within the individual, but it also exists in the connection between a person and the activity it engages in. Humans are intrinsically motivated for certain activities they find pleasant and enjoyable, but not for others. More so, not all people are inherently motivated. Extrinsic motivation can be just as useful.
Because all behaviors are believed to be motivated by rewards, intrinsically motivated individuals are said to find their reward in the activity itself. It is these internal rewards that count the most when it comes to our psychological needs, researchers say. Intrinsically motivated activities feed our innate psychological needs.
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