Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Implications in School, Work, and Psychological Well-Being

As a student, finding the necessary energy and focus to complete homework is not always easy, especially when there are competing demands of family, work, and social activities. It can be just as difficult to motivate one’s self to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. So how does one find the energy to do things they may not necessarily want to do? The key of course, is motivation, and understanding how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, human needs, and goals can affect one’s enthusiasm, attitude, performance, and psychological well-being.

What Is Motivation?

 Motivation can be thought of as the energizing force behind behaviors, and it is what gives our behavior direction and persistence. For years, psychologists viewed motivation as a unitary concept—meaning that you either had it or not. People who are motivated are easy to spot: they are much more likely to approach an activity, and do so with much more enthusiasm, energy, direction, and tenacity. Alternatively, those who lack motivation often procrastinate or avoid a task all together, and when they do participate in the activity, they show much less enthusiasm, creativity, or persistence.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Although most people have a pretty good understanding of what motivation is, not everyone is as familiar with the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because one is inherently interested in the task or activity at hand. They are not concerned with external rewards or recognition, but rather, the drive is based upon enjoying the activity itself, and having a match between interest, perceived skill or capability, and the demand of the task at hand. An example might be an artist painting, or spending time gardening, where all sense of time is lost, but the enjoyment is in the activity itself.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to participating in a task or activity to receive external reinforcement or avoid a punishment. Reinforcements can range from verbal praise and recognition to awards, money, job titles, prestige, fame, popularity, degrees, or records. Intrinsic motivation, according to psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, is growth oriented, meaning it is the propensity for one to explore and learn.

For example, someone might attend college because they are seeking a degree, opportunities for growth in the workplace, and a sense of recognition. Alternatively, another person may not need a degree to further their career but they are inherently interested in learning. Curiosity and the desire to learn might be their driving force rather than GPA or a diploma, and perceptions of success are based upon personal growth. The first case would be an example of someone who is extrinsically motivated and performance goal oriented, whereas the latter would be an example of someone who is intrinsically motivated and learning goal oriented.

What Is the Preferred Type of Motivation and Why?

Deci and Ryan recognized the majority of activities that people participate in on a daily basis are not fundamentally interesting and sought to understand how people are motivated to engage in these activities. Daily tasks such as taking out the trash, recycling, cleaning the house, running errands, doing homework, obeying speed limits, or waking up early for work are just a few examples. Deci and Ryan concluded that to participate in such activities, people rely upon extrinsic motivation. Whether we are avoiding punishments such as speeding tickets, or earning rewards such as diplomas and paychecks, external factors help us to find the energy to participate in such activities.

However, the problem with relying too heavily upon the environment for motivation is that sometimes the rewards are delayed, or the perceived cost of participating in a behavior outweighs the perceived rewards. Furthermore, Deci, Ryan, and Professor of Psychology Richard Koestner have revealed that although rewards can be motivating for people who are not intrinsically motivated to participate in a behavior, rewards can actually undermine intrinsic motivation because they take the perceived control away from the individual and place control in the hands of others. To be truly intrinsically motivated, one must feel free from pressures, including rewards or contingencies. Thus, intrinsic motivation is preferred over extrinsic because it is self-driven and not reliant upon any reinforcement or punishment from the environment.

Because intrinsically motivated behavior is not contingent upon any external reward or punishment, and involves self-directed motivation, it is both stronger and longer lasting, especially in the face of challenges. In addition, people who are intrinsically motivated are much more likely to approach tasks with enthusiasm and creativity, because without a sense of pressure to complete things under strict deadlines or in certain ways, people are more likely to explore unique ways of problem solving.

The Role of Needs

According to Deci and Ryan, the key to promoting and sustaining more self-determined forms of motivation is through need fulfillment. According to the theory of motivation known as the Self Determination Theory, all human beings, regardless of culture, have three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the need for volition or choice. Competence refers to the need to feel a sense of mastery. Relatedness refers to the need to have close reciprocal and caring relationships with others, and to feel that one belongs. The need for relatedness is thought to serve a more distal purpose in motivation for people living in individualistic cultures such as the United States, although there are both individual and group differences. Individualistic cultures in general, promote values of individual competition, recognition, and gain, and to some degree even view reliance on others as a form of weakness. However, collectivist cultures such as southeast Asian, and even collectivist cultures within the U.S. such as American Indian, Alaska Native, Hawaiian Native, and the military, emphasize harmonious interdependence, and any individual gains are meant to strengthen the larger group.

Environments that are not overly controlling or pressuring offer choices, promote learning and mastery, and encourage a sense of belonging through close and reciprocal relationships are those that foster intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, environments that are controlling, rigid, overly demanding, offer few opportunities for mastery, are overly competitive, and consist of individuals who are unpredictable, judgmental, or possess values that conflict with one’s own, prevent needs and lower psychological well-being.

Practical Applications in Academia and the Workplace

What are the practical applications of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? As a leader in any environment, understanding how to motivate others is essential to increasing performance, morale, participation, and well-being. Examining the environment and determining whether needs are being met or thwarted is an important first step. By creating a workplace or classroom that is autonomy supportive (i.e., where others feel less controlled, and have more flexibility in deadlines and format of assignments/duties), friendly, and provides informative and encouraging feedback, promotes opportunities for success and competence, fosters camaraderie and inclusion, and promotes motivation and well-being. Then again, environments that are perceived as either internally or externally controlling can have devastating effects on motivation. For example, leaders who use externally controlling methods by ignoring the perspectives of subordinates, relying upon intimidation and pressure, and strategies such as yelling, humiliation and belittling others prevent need satisfaction. Similarly, internally controlling methods such as withdrawing attention, interest, and care of those who fail to meet expectations also risk undermining the motivation and well-being of those they lead.

On a personal level, evaluating where needs are being met or prevented on a daily basis can provide valuable insight into one’s own motivation. For example, are you avoiding tasks because you feel little control? Do you feel that you possess the knowledge or skills necessary to succeed? Do you feel that you belong in a particular workplace or academic culture? When need thwarting is identified, it is important to think of ways to manipulate environments in order to better satisfy needs on a consistent basis.

For example, if you are a student and enrolled in a course that is too difficult, it may be necessary to find additional resources to help, such as reaching out to your instructor, seeking help through the library resources, asking if there is available tutoring, and if you have not taken the pre-requisite courses, taking those, especially if you have been out of school for a while. Although deadlines will always exist in both academia as well as in the workplace, there are certain things that can be done to promote a sense of autonomy. For example, asking a professor if there are options on formatting of assignments (ex: multimedia rather than written reports, choice of topics for research assignments, etc.) can make all the difference in whether or not an assignment is interesting. In a workplace, employees may consider approaching a supervisor regarding flexibility with choice of software programs, formats, work hours, or even individual vs. team projects. Sometimes even little things, such as scheduling in lunch with friends, can make a huge difference in your workday.

Drawing from the research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, there are several ways to increase motivation. If the initial interest in the activity or behavior is very low, then it is necessary to first rely upon external rewards and punishments to promote motivation. However, to promote and sustain more self-determined forms of motivation, one must see the value of the behavior—how does it tie in with one’s personal experiences, values, or goals? In order to promote competence, it is important to receive informative feedback (as opposed to criticism), have opportunities for remediation, and break a large or difficult goal into smaller, more manageable short-term goals. Settings that foster close and supportive relationships with others help foster motivation and a sense of belonging. Finally, in order for motivation to be truly intrinsic, it must not be seen as either internally or externally controlling. To promote a sense of autonomy, one must feel that they have some degree of input and flexibility. Sometimes hard deadlines and formatting simply cannot be helped, so in such cases, it will be important to try to foster competence and relatedness to sustain motivation.