Are You Intrinsically Motivated?

Are You Intrinsically Motivated?

Learn about intrinsic motivation and how to leverage this theory.

To understand intrinsic motivation, it’s helpful to place it in contrast with extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is the drive to pursue an action because it is inherently enjoyable or interesting to the individual. Conversely, extrinsic motivation refers to doing something based on external rewards or outcomes associated with that action (Ryan & Deci, 2000a).


To understand intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, here are some situational examples of each:

Intrinsic Motivation – For her 40th birthday, Louise decided to run a marathon for the first time. She loves how exhilarating it feels to run long distances and can’t wait to prove to herself that she’s able to complete the race, no matter how long it takes.

Extrinsic Motivation – A coworker complimented Jorge’s handmade ceramic coffee mug. He’s been making more of them to sell and is even taking custom orders. The extra income is helpful because his husband has been wanting to renovate the kitchen but money is tight.

“The skills that got you here today are not the same ones that will take you confidently into the future. Continue to learn and adapt.”
― Jennifer Touma

Intrinsic Motivation Theory

Much of the extensive early research on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation was done in the 1970s and 1980s by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two psychologists interested in personality and behavioral self-regulation. In 1985, their book Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior formally introduced self-determination theory. Self-determination theory was largely focused on factors that impact a sense of control over one’s own life and understanding motivations and choices made without the influence of outside distractions or pressures (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

The body of research on Self-determination theory since its inception has focused on the kinds of social and cultural conditions and factors that can foster or inhibit healthy psychological development, self-regulation, and well-being. In other words, what makes people engaged and energized in their daily lives and what holds them back? As you can imagine, understanding intrinsic motivation was a major pillar of work under the theory.

A subtheory of Self-determination theory known as Basic Psychological Need Theory conceptualizes three main innate psychological needs that, when fulfilled, promote greater self-motivation and satisfaction. In turn, when these needs are undermined or challenged, individuals are less internally motivated and their well-being decreases (Ryan & Deci, 2000b). 

Innate Psychological Needs for Intrinsic Motivation

Autonomy – The need for autonomy is a need for perceived control over your own life and actions—the sense that your behavior and choices are self-determined. However, autonomy is deeper than just a sense of control; it is also concerned with a sense of personal integrity and authenticity.

Competence – The need for competence is associated with feelings of mastery and self-efficacy. Feeling capable and effective in an activity is indeed satisfying and can serve as a remedy to feelings of failure or inadequacy in another area. Interestingly, people demonstrate a greater motivation to succeed in a competence-supportive task, or something they’re capable of doing, after experiencing competence frustration in a more challenging task (Fang et al., 2018).

Relatedness – Relatedness, or connection, is a third driver in intrinsic motivation. Relatedness helps individuals to internalize the values of the context or activity in which they are acting and generate a sense of purpose based on this connection. Because of the need to maintain social connections with others and foster a sense of belongingness, we are motivated to act in a way that aligns with these relationships (Leary & Baumeister, 1995).

Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation

Being driven to seek novelty, be curious, and explore just for the sake of doing so is critical for human development. It makes us ready to learn about the world and develop skills without the explicit need for external rewards (Gottfriend, 1983). Additionally, curiosity itself seems to be rewarding.

One study used fMRI imaging to observe participants’ brain activity while reading trivia questions. The individuals’ level of curiosity when reading questions correlated positively with activity in caudate regions of the brain which have previously been linked to reward anticipation. The study also found that participants were willing to exchange resources for trivia answers when they were more curious, showing that information exchange has reward value when people are in a curious state (Kang et al., 2009).

However, intrinsic motivation plays a major role in every stage of your life beyond just childhood development. Intrinsic motivation is generally considered to be more durable in the long term than extrinsic motivation because it supports a sense of personal energy and vitality rather than stagnating or depleting it (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

You’ve most likely heard the phrase, “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” While that adage probably isn’t 100% true for anyone, it does reflect the advantage of having intrinsic motivation on your side: When doing a job that makes you feel satisfied, capable, and connected, you’re motivated to clock in by more than just the promise of a paycheck. Intrinsic motivation can also influence the positive effects of other behaviors. One longitudinal study found that the stress-relieving effects of physical activity in young adults were only observed in those who had high intrinsic motivation for exercise (Meyer, Grob, & Gerber, 2001). 

In Sum

No matter your age or occupation, intrinsic motivation has likely powered many undertakings throughout your life: spending hours perfecting your three-pointer, learning to make a perfect Baked Alaska, or studying for that big exam to bring you one step closer to becoming a doctor. Not everything is intrinsically motivating, but reflecting on what motivates you and finding ways to leverage intrinsic motivation whenever possible can make for a more enriching and vibrant life.


● Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M.(1985). Conceptualizations of intrinsic motivation and self-determination. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior, 11-40.

● Fang, H., He, B., Fu, H., Zhang, H., Mo, Z., & Meng, L. (2018). A surprising source of self-motivation: prior competence frustration strengthens one’s motivation to win in another competence-supportive activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 314.

● Gottfried, A. E. (1983). Intrinsic motivation in young children. Young children, 64-73.

● Kang, M. J., Hsu, M., Krajbich, I. M., Loewenstein, G., McClure, S. M., Wang, J. T., & Camerer, C. F. (2009). The wick in the candle of learning: epistemic curiosity activates reward circuitry and enhances memory. Psychological science, 20(8), 963–973.

● Leary, M. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (1995). The need to belong. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

● Meyer, S., Grob, A., & Gerber, M. (2021). No fun, no gain: The stress-buffering effect of physical activity on life satisfaction depends on adolescents’ intrinsic motivation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 56, 102004.

● Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000a). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.

● Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000b). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

● Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). From ego depletion to vitality: Theory and findings concerning the facilitation of energy available to the self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(2), 702–717